Ishmael Beah reads an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, published in January by Sarah Crichton Books.
She was the first to arrive where it seemed the wind no longer exhaled. Several miles from town, the trees had entangled one another. Their branches grew toward the ground, burying the leaves in the soil to blind their eyes so the sun would not promise them tomorrow with its rays. It was only the path that was reluctant to cloak its surface completely with grasses, as though it anticipated it would soon end its starvation for the warmth of bare feet that gave it life.
The long and winding paths were spoken of as “snakes” that one walked upon to encounter life or to arrive at the places where life lived. Like snakes, the paths were now ready to shed their old skins for new ones, and such occurrences take time with the necessary interruptions. Today, her feet began one of those interruptions. It may be that those whose years have many seasons are always the first to rekindle their broken friendship with the land, or it may just have happened this way.
The breeze nudged her bony body, covered with a tattered cloth thin and faded from many washings, toward what had been her town. She had removed her flip-flops, set them on her head, and carefully placed her bare feet on the path, waking the caked dirt with her gentle steps. With closed eyes she conjured the sweet smell of the flowers that would turn to coffee beans, which the sporadic breath of the wind fanned into the air. It was a freshness that used to overcome the forest and find its way into the noses of visitors many miles away. Such a scent was a promise to a traveler of life ahead, of a place to rest and quench one’s thirst and perhaps ask for directions if one was lost. But today the scent made her weep, starting slowly at first, with sobs that then became a cry of the past. A cry, almost a song, to mourn what has been lost while its memory refuses to depart, and a cry to celebrate what has been left, however little, to infuse it with residues of old knowledge. She swayed to her own melody and the echo of her voice first filled her, making her body tremble, and then filled the forest. She lamented for miles, pulling shrubs that her strength allowed and tossing them aside on the path.
Finally, she arrived at the quiet town without being greeted by the crows of cocks, the voices of children playing games, the sound of a blacksmith hitting a red-hot iron to make a tool, or the rise of smoke from fireplaces. Even without these signals of a time that seemed far gone, she was so happy to be home that she found herself running to her house, her legs suddenly gaining more strength for her age. Alas, as she reached her home, she began to weep. The song from the past had abruptly left her tongue. Her house had been burnt a while back and the remaining pillars were still dark from the smoke. Tears consumed her deep brown eyes and slowly rolled down her long face until her sharp cheekbones were soaked. She wept to accept what she knew had happened but also to allow her tears to drop on the ground and call on those gone to return in spirit form. She wept now because she hadn’t been able to do so for seven years, as staying alive required parting with all familiar ways of living during the years when the guns took words out of the mouths of the elders. On her way to her home, she had passed many towns and villages that resembled what her watery eyes now looked at. There was one town in particular that was eerier than the others—there were rows of human skulls on either side of the path leading into town. When the breeze came about, as it did frequently, it shook the skulls, causing them to rotate slowly, so it seemed they were all turning their hollow eye sockets at her as she hastened past them. Despite such sights, she had refused to commit her mind to the possibility that her town would be charred. Perhaps it was her way of keeping hope vibrant within so that it would keep on fueling her determination to continue the walk home. She didn’t want to call the name of that home, not even in her mind. But something now took charge of her tongue and made her ask, “Will this ever be Imperi?”
The name of her land had been released into the ears of the wind even with her bewildered question. She found her feet again and began walking around the town. There were bones, human bones, everywhere, and all she could tell was which had been a child or an adult.
She managed to conjure the memory of what the town had looked like the day before she began running away for her life. It was at the end of the rainy season when everyone repaired and refreshed the façades of their homes. There were new roofs, thatch or zinc, and the walls of some houses were painted with vivid colors, increasing the liveliness of the dry season. It was the first time her family had had the means to cement the walls of their house and therefore could paint it black at the foundation, green to the windowsill, and yellow all the way up to the roof. Her children, grandchildren, husband, and she stood outside admiring their home. They didn’t know that the following day they would abandon everything and be separated from one another forever.
When the gunshots rang through town and chaos ensued the day that war came into her life, she had turned around to look at her home before running away. If she died, she wanted to at least do so with a good memory of home.
She had returned home because she could not find complete happiness anywhere else. She had scoured refugee camps and the homes of kind strangers for some sort of joy that didn’t need entertainment, something she knew existed only on the land she now stood upon. She remembered an afternoon not so long ago that had followed days of hunger and finally an offer of a sumptuous bowl of rice with stewed fish. She ate, at first vigorously, and then her muscles slowed down, straining the movements of her hand to her mouth. The pepper tasted different from the one her memory still held on to, and the water she drank was not from a small calabash that smelled of the clay pot that had cooled the water for her household since she was a little girl. She finished her food and drank to stay alive, but she knew there was more to living than these temporary acknowledgments of life. The only satisfaction that remained after finishing the food was the memory of the sound of pepper pounded in a mortar and, with it, the biting fragrance that took hold of the air around the compound and the laughter that ensued as men and boys would flee.
“It is so easy to drive them away,” her mother would say as the other women continued laughing, their eyes and noses not showing any sign of discomfort as the men’s and boys’ did.
She looked at the bones again, her eyes moving beyond the piles to find strength to leap forward. “This is still my home,” she whispered to herself and sighed, pressing her bare feet deeper into the earth.
Evening was approaching and the sky was preparing to roll over and change its side. She sat on the ground, allowing the night’s breeze to soothe her face and her pain, to dry her tears. When she was a child, her grandmother told her that at the quietest hours of night, God and gods would wave their hands through the breeze to wipe just a few things off the face of the earth so that it would be able to accommodate the following day. Though her pain didn’t completely disappear with the arrival of morning, she felt some new strength within her heart that gave her the idea to pluck herself from the earth and begin cleaning the bones. She started at her house with a pile in her hands that shivered maybe because of the cool morning air or the emotions that came from gathering what remained of others. Her feet took her toward the coffee farm behind her house. She held the bones with a delicate but firm grip, pondering how so many could be reduced to such fragments. “Perhaps it is only when the flesh masks the bones of one’s body that you gain some worth. Or is it what you do when life breathes through you that makes your memory worthwhile?” She stopped her questions for a bit to allow her scattered thoughts to coalesce. She felt this was the way to harden within her the memories of those she was now carrying so lightly. Her mind became an anthill filled with smoke. She didn’t pay much attention to where she was headed. Her feet were familiar with the ground; her eyes, ears, and heart were on another journey.
She rounded a corner and dropped the pile, her heart sinking to her waist-bone at the resounding thud of the bones hitting the dusty earth. Her feet gave way under her body as she saw the back of a man sitting on his knees tying bones together as one would a bundle of kindling. She could tell that this was an old man, as his hair was the color of stagnant clouds. The man’s movements expressed his age. This brought her heart back to its proper place, allowing the rest of her body to resume its many functions.
Excerpted from Radiance of Tomorrow with permission by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2014 by Ishmael Beah.