Type of Short Story: Short Story
Sipho set out to fulfil his Grandfather’s dream, and in doing so learnt the power of imagination.
Careful of the precious bundle tucked under his arm, Sipho climbed out of the rattling bus and stepped down onto the rutted dirt road. It felt warm and welcoming beneath his bare feet. He stood for a few moments breathing in the familiar smells and watching the bus as it sped further into the mountains in a fast disappearing dust cloud.
He smiled to himself. His heart was glad. He was on his way home and he had done it. At last he had his Grandfather’s dream. Now his Grandfather would be well again.
He saw that the sun was at its highest, and there were still many hills to climb before he would reach his own kraal. If he was to be home before the sun went down he could not delay. But first he must check the bundle. He settled on a small rock, sending a dozing lizard scuttling into the long dry grass. Carefully, he unwrapped the tattered red shirt and inspected the bottle to make sure that none of the precious contents had escaped. Satisfied that all was well, he re-tied the shirt and set off.
At first the path was well worn and there were many people to greet. “Sawubona,” they called. “Hamba kahle. Go well.” He waved to the young herd boys tending the goats, and the girls gathering wood for fires.
When he neared the first kraal, he caught the tempting smell of chicken stew bubbling in an iron pot. “Woza, sidle nansi inkukhu,” they invited him. But Sipho could not be tempted to join them. “Ngiyabonga,” he said regretfully. He wanted to be home before the sun disappeared behind the tall fingers of uKhahlamba, the mountain they called the Barrier of Spears.
Over the next hill the path grew narrower and he passed tall fleshy aloes with their fiery orange flowers, and the prickly thorn trees. High in the sky, no more than a distant speck, an eagle soared.
In places, cattle cropped the patchy grass. “Weh, bafana,” he called to the herd boys who would soon be driving the animals back to the safety of the boma.
“Hello,” the boys returned the greeting. “Go well.”
Sipho’s own kraal was still far into the distance. But he would not allow his legs to tire, or his feet to grow sore, because he knew that in the bottle he held his Grandfather’s dream.
As the sun slowly slid towards uKhahlamba he picked his way over the smooth worn boulders and stones of the trickling river. The icy water sent a chill through his feet and he stopped for a few moments to wash the dust from his legs, and to cup his hands in the clear liquid to quench his thirst. Soon he had the bundle tucked under his arm again, and was heading up the final slope toward home.
When he neared the kraal he caught sight of the wispy smoke as it drifted lazily from the sweet-smelling wood fires. Cattle shuffled contentedly in the boma, and the scratching hens scattered at his approach.
Sipho hesitated for a moment before ducking into the cool interior of the darkened hut. In the small spear of sunlight from the hole in the roof where the smoke escaped, he saw his Grandfather resting on his sleeping mat.
Bowing his head respectfully, Sipho announced quietly, “Grandfather, I have brought it.”
The old man slowly awakened. Awkwardly, he propped his shrunken body on his elbow. Sipho began to untie the bundle. But the old man put out his hand to stop the boy.
“Let us go into the light where I can see better,” he said, struggling to his feet.
“Woza. Come,” said Sipho, placing his strong young arm around the shaky old man. He guided him to a low wooden stool, worn shiny with use outside the hut. He disappeared for a few moments before returning with a clay pot of foaming sorghum beer. He handed it to his grandfather. The shaky hands gripped the pot, and tipping it back, the old man took a long drink before settling down.
Sipho carefully untied the tattered shirt. Then he gently placed the bottle in the gnarled hands. As the aged, brown fingers wrapped around the jar, they reminded Sipho of old worn hide. When his grip was secure, the old man lifted the bottle to the sun and allowed its weakening rays to glint on the clear water.
“Look well, Grandfather, at the sand at the bottom of the jar,” urged Sipho. “It really is the sea I have brought you.”
The old man smiled, squinting in the fading light.
Sipho reached forward and unscrewed the cap. “Smell inside, Grandfather. Smell the sea.”
The old man brought the bottle to his nose and drew in a deep breath.
“Can you not smell it, Grandfather?”
The old man nodded. Sipho eagerly took the bottle from him. “See how it tastes, Grandfather,” he said, trickling a little of the water into the old man’s cupped hands. The old man pressed his tongue to the liquid.
“Does it not taste of salt, like I said it would?”
“It tastes as you said,” agreed the old man, chuckling.
Sipho fetched a spoon, and scooping out some of the sand, poured it into his Grandfather’s hand. “Feel it, Grandfather, it is finer even than the finest salt. When you step on it, it moves softly under your feet.”
The old man smiled at the earnestness of the young boy. But then he shook his head. “You have travelled far to bring me the sea, my son. But I have not yet seen it.”
Sipho fell back, disappointed. He did not understand. Had he not shown the bottle of seawater to his Grandfather? Had he not pointed out the fine grains of sand and the tiny pieces of shell from the creatures that lived in it?
He searched his Grandfather’s face for some meaning. Perhaps it was his eyes that seemed filled with smoke prevented him from seeing, or the little red pathways running around the faded brown centres, like the pathways that criss-crossed the valley. Was that why his grandfather could not see? But his Grandfather had seen the bottle and the water. Had he not held it up to the light?
Sipho pondered on this as he again looked at the bottle. And then all at once he knew what his Grandfather meant. He had seen the bottle of water, but he had not seen the sea.
“I will show you the sea, Grandfather,” he said, settling down on his haunches. He closed his eyes and sighed as he recalled the long journey he had undertaken.
He had set off the previous day well before the sun had risen. He had asked many people the way to the sea. Three times he had changed buses and taxis and it was already past midday when he’d had his first glimpse of the sea.
“Look. There it is,” the young woman sitting beside him had cried when the bus crested a hill. He’d glanced eagerly out of the window. But in the distance, where the sky touched the earth, he saw only a disappointing grey flatness, like the sky when the storm clouds gather.
But a little while later, when the sea was finally before him, Sipho’s eyes had grown round like an owl’s.
“The sea is as wide as the mountains, and beyond, Grandfather,” Sipho began, “as if the sky has fallen to the earth. It moves as the long grass when the wind runs through it.”
Sipho felt the remembered drumbeat of excitement in his chest. “And the colour is sometimes that of the sky, and sometimes that of the waving grass, and the distant forests when the sun has left them.”
The old man too, had closed his eyes. He rocked gently on the stool and let the words flow over him.
“The voice of the sea, Grandfather,” said the boy, “is the voice of the wind when it shouts across the mountains. It growls and grows more fierce until the sea bursts and froths like sorghum beer, and then it runs hissing and singing up the sand.”
Sipho recalled how he had lain awake almost the whole night listening to the powerful voice of the sea.
But now he was aware of his Grandfather. The old man coughed and a spasm shook him.
“Grandfather,” said the boy, his face full of concern.
“Go on, boy,” said the old man. “Tell me more.”
“The sand was hot, like the ashes of the fire before they finally die. The water had the warmth of the sun in it. At first, it pulled at my feet, as the goats tug on their tethers. But as I went deeper, it knocked me over and dragged me under, as if it were a creature with many arms. It had not the stillness of a deep rock pool. The sea tumbled me over and over, like the time I slipped and rolled down the hill. The water was in my eyes and my mouth and my nose. When I thought that my lungs could no longer bear it, the sea spat me out as if it were telling me, “This is my power, I challenge you.”
He turned to his Grandfather and saw that the old man was smiling and laughing quietly to himself. Had he too, seen Sipho spat out by the sea?
“When the sun has gone,” Sipho continued,” the sea grows as dark as the inside of the hut when the fire has died. But when the moon peeps through the clouds the sea is like the wet nose of the cattle.”
As he finished his story, Sipho watched for a sign from his Grandfather. The wrinkled face did not seem as troubled, and he could see a smile on the shrunken mouth.
They sat in silent thought while the sun gradually sank behind the spears of uKhahlamba . Finally the old man roused himself. “I am tired. Take me inside,” he told Sipho.
Sipho settled his Grandfather on the sleeping mat and then returned with the jar of seawater. He placed it at the old man’s head. In the darkened hut Sipho could barely see his Grandfather’s face, but he sensed a peace about him.
“Thank you, my boy,” said the old man quietly. “At last I have seen the sea.”