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A trail in the woods

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With Mankhokwe Namusanya:

There is a trail in the woods that men take to find themselves. As for the men that take it, not all return. Some remain there; never to be seen again.

I like to think that none returns. That, even when they reappear from that trail, they are not the same man. For they have had their feet scrap the shrubs of the woods and have found the new man in them.

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It is a cold morning. I am a random stranger. He is a random person.

He is shivering. Should have had a cigar hanging loosely on the edge of his mouth.

He smells my unfamiliarity from a far – long before he takes the seat next to me.

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“Not from around here?”

I do not protest. Instead, on pulling up some confidence, I ask: “How do you know?”

“Intuition,” he smiles. A thin smile.

Sometimes when you are around a new area, you try your best to hide your newness to the area. You sometimes get successful. However, in most instances, it is the trying-so-hard that has you revealed.

He has a story he wants to tell, it seems so obvious. But, I am not in a place I can dig for a story. Rather, the story must follow me if it wants.

We have a small talk but I can sense that it is not in his interest. I can sense that there is an elephant in the space between us. There is an ice, demanding to be broken. He realises that too, and he breaks it:

“I was fighting for custody.”

“A girl or a boy?”

“A boy, I would not have dared if it was a girl. They go through your records and my record is not all that impressive…”

I just shake my head, to show I am listening. To show I am there.

“I made mistakes, in my youth.”

He is not really old for him to say ‘in my youth’ but I am not here to make friends.

“You know, it is such a sad thing that institutions can hold you up for things you did while just growing up. You knew nothing. You were young. Such things should be, must be actually, forgivable.”

“Sometimes, the gullies we dig run deeper than we know it. There, it does not matter when they were dug,” I do not actually say that because I am afraid of sounding like an elder from some African novel set in colonial times. I say something simpler and chic.

He looks at me as if in wonder. Like, perhaps, he has just realised that I am the institutions he has been fighting. That, somehow, after he had thrown up his arms in the air and had whistled a sad lonely tune before stepping on the bus just to take a seat next to me then, the institutions had followed him and had taken a seat next to him.

“I get it, man, but people are not stones. People change.”

I say it is true and, talking about stones, even they change. They disintegrate. They rot. But, sometimes, we all remember the place that the stone stood at. Or, we remember the pain we once felt when we hit our foot against that long dissolved stone.

“And the child is mine, now I want to do the right thing.”

“Why now, why not then?”

He says he got another child. Or, rather, he fathered another child. Because, really, for him life has been a fast lane: father a child here, and disappear. Then, father a child there, and disappear. Like some sort of a game – maybe hide and seek – with the mothers and the children.

Until maybe a year before this conversation. He met this woman. He fathered a child and could not really disappear. Not because of the child. Because of the woman.

“She is so sweet,” his eyes, I just think, are moist as he says this. I am facing forward so I cannot really see his face. But, I think, he is smiling. You know that smile when someday you just realise that you are a lucky person because you found love you thought you would never find?

She stayed with the woman. A child was born. His journey through the trail in the woods started. He was a father. An actual father. Not just a sperm donor.

“And that changes you. It transforms you in ways you can never understand.”

He pulls out his mobile phone, starts showing me the photos of his daughter.

“She changed my perspective.”

“So, it wasn’t the mother who changed your perspective, it was the child?”

“They both did. The mother, in a far much grand manner. This one, I call her the apple of this eye, in a far much grander way.”

He says then he started tracing his way. Remembering the women he made pregnant. He found one. He wanted to be in the life of the child – after seven years. She was not going to have any of it. She was doing fine with her son.

“She said they don’t need me. I told her I was not doing it because they needed me. I was doing it because I needed him, the child, in my life. But, that woman.”

They went to court. Then, she dug up her past and threw it in the face of the court. He was a convict. A drug dealer. A run-away father. An irresponsible man.

“I told them I changed, I am married. Pay bills. Pay taxes. Do clean money. But, man, sometimes the system just doesn’t forgive.”

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