The International Writers Magazine: Off the Grid in ZA
Found in a Lost Land
The old lady lisped. Her teeth were jagged and her gums black. Her tongue crashed against her lips. I shuddered, almost mimicking her manner of speech. Perhaps we had gone so far back in time that dentists did not exist.
I knew any normal person in the modern world would feel self-conscious of such disastrous jaws. Yet, this old lady seemed utterly unashamed of her scary mouth; as if she was almost proud of it.
I hide behind him, afraid of this creature, and her confidence. Her long skirt shuffles up the dust, and we troop behind her, more nervous than curious. The town, a valley beyond the hills, is desolate. She gestures irritably, don’t stop there, walk a bit faster. How could we be so tired after a mere met just a metres? The weather cuts into my throat, and I drag my feet through the hot sand.
It is taking forever to get to this village. I can’t walk anymore. I sit down, on the caramel coloured earth, and feel like crying. It had seemed like a great idea. We would be nomads for a week, drifting in and out of cities, sleeping under a tapestry of stars. He wanted an adventure, I wanted a journey. So, we set of. Oh so impulsive. We travelled over old lands, experienced fresh cultures, enjoyed life. The excitement made the world gorgeous. He sits down, next to me, and asks; both exhausted and exasperated ‘what do you want?’ Lemonade,’ I answer.
We’d gotten far enough, and then we were lost. The GPRS blinked at us sullenly, searching for a satellite signal. I stared at it in consternation, we’d trusted it! We resorted to paper maps, one of those old fashioned things you used when you were desperate. It didn’t help; there was nothing in this world but squiggly lanes. Then the 4x4 jammed and the sand, flirty and light, didn’t make matters any easier. I punched the car service numbers into my mobile; touch screen, mega pixel camera, a calculator that I didn’t know how to use, and integrated with a thousand apps. And for all its sophistication, it couldn’t pick up any coverage.
‘Can you fix it?’ I asked, as he stared at the engine.
‘No, I’m a writer,’ he shrugged, as if it was the perfect explanation. ‘Didn’t you ever do a mechanic crash course?’
‘I think I know how to change a tyre.’ I answered.
‘Perhaps we can do that together sometime.’ He smiled.
I saw smoke in the distance. We walked hand in hand, down a tiny path, until we met the old lady, not very far from where the car broke down.
Finally, we arrive at the village. There are a few whitewashed houses, with flat roofs. The children are playing under a thorn tree that barely offers much shade. They stare at us in astonishment, as if we’re the jinn, and have converged out of a sandstorm. The old lady beckons us into her home. I know I would not so easily call a stranger inside my home, especially if it looked rather shabby. I wonder at her motives. ‘Stop it,’ he whispers angrily. The lady senses my hesitation, and smiles, something becoming, and not judging, utterly real. I don’t see her teeth, or her rough skin, I sense a heart that is pure, and welcoming. I skip ahead.
It is cool inside the house and very clean. ‘C’mon in’ she calls, or signs rather. I’m too tired to search the guide book and find the words for ‘May I please sit down?’ I wonder if they even speak guide book dialect, which, if truth be told, gets more laughter than information. I invite myself, and sit down. ‘Come on,’ I call, patting the seat next to me. His head is bowed, his brown curls a halo framing his face and he walks away. I feel a pang of doubt, but I’m too tired to explore the feeling, to go after him. I fall asleep, hopeful of the old lady’s hospitality and that nobody will kidnap me. I hope he comes back.
I dream about home, the gold grass and the willow tree. I see my family, waving, and then melting off into their own lives, worlds. Then I see the newest member of my very own family, our relationship fresh and cautious. His fingers entwined through mine; we’re talking, wondering what we’re going to do. ‘Something spontaneous,’ I wonder, ‘let’s travel,’ he iterates. ‘Let’s go find freedom,’ I say, and we laugh. Laughter that doesn’t have boundaries, that is clear, crisp, delicious.
I wake up, lost, and startled. There is a young girl, twirling my hair round her fingers. She reminds me of my young sister, always braiding and playing, tying trinkets onto my locks. Um, could you leave me alone? Please? Who are you? I see a medley of children, of varied height, and face, but all with the same amused expression. Have they never seen a person beyond these dunes?! Do they not know what a backpack is? I sneeze. And they convulse into giggles. I swing my backpack round my shoulders, checking to see if my passport is safe, but I can’t find it. I panic, wondering if somebody could’ve taken it, if it fell out somewhere. I put my head in my hands, which cause the children to offer a moment of silence. It is a gesture of worry and confusion, one that everybody understands.
I stand, stumbling a bit. Where has he gone? I grab air, signalling wildly. Dramatic scenes flash through my mind. He will come back, won’t he?
It is twilight, the sky licking away the last bits of syrupy sun. The courtyard starts to chatter, the strange words stringing themselves around me. This tiny colony of houses has suddenly come to life. Naps are dusted of shoulders, babies are bathed for the evening and the smell of food seeps through the walls. I’m starving. I wonder what we’ll eat tonight; perhaps I could buy some food somewhere. What would it be, a goat burger, goat milk milkshake and some cassava potato chips.
There is a wooden water bucket outside, and I rush to splash water on my face, looking around for a well. There isn’t one. I feel ashamed. Perhaps they had to trudge hours to get water, and I had wasted precious drops, by washing away something as trivial as dust ‘Where do you get water from?’ I ask a middle aged lady, who turns her nose away, almost snobbishly. When I was young I thought everybody could speak English, that they knew what was milk and cornflakes. I thought that the word ‘water’ was entirely universal.
I shuffle back inside the house, with its cold floors, and high ceilings. The old lady returns, a tooth-stick in her mouth, and welcomes me to the kitchen, a spread of unusual dishes on the table. I want to write about all of this, about my day, which is so markedly different from all the others. I haven’t visited ruins, or heard extraordinary tales, seen wild animals, or the perfect view; I’ve just stepped back in time, and lost myself with the years. ‘Where have I gone to?’ I murmur. The others smile, eating happily. ‘Yum, yum, yum,’ surely there is not a different language for that to.
I eat, chewing politely on something rather strange. What if we stay here for the rest of our lives? What if I’m here alone and I never get to speak English ever again? Where is he?! I feel a sudden anger, at his silent departure, at his abandoning me.
I excuse myself, and find the old lady in the courtyard. I pace up and down the passage, my fists bunched up, waiting, worried. She points, and I see him, striding towards us. I want to run, and throw my arms around him. I don’t, overcome by a sudden shyness.
‘What happened, where were you?!’ I ask.
‘Close your eyes.’ He replies.
‘Just close it’
‘I want you to taste something’
‘Don’t you trust me?’
‘Of course I do!’
I taste sweet, sharp, ice. Lemonade.
I’ve fallen in love. The old lady winks and gives me a pat on the shoulder.
‘Come, let’s go. I’ve found somebody who can fix the car and take us back to the city. Oh, here’s your passport,’ he says. You took my passport, my heart, and my life.
Let’s go back to the world.
© Jasmine Shoaib Nov 3rd 2010