An African Fable
The tall grass that surrounded the house rustled softly as the last of the night breezes faded away and the warmth of the day seeped in from the open windows. With night gone the heat arrived, accompanied by the sounds of children playing in the open field beyond the perimeter of the house, and as the last blades of grass fell silent with the dying of the wind, the yells and squeals of the children rose up in a crescendo. The occupant of the house much preferred the muted sounds of the wind.
Chumba was eighty six years old, although he wouldn’t have known that. He knew only that he had seen many years go by, that after his wife had died each year seemed far longer than was normal, and that he had no more friends left. In reality, however, he never had many friends, and those few that he had known belonged to a time long ago, when his wife was alive; everyone after that was no more than an acquaintance. He sometimes wondered why he was still here when everyone he knew had departed this world. Chumba would ask God why he was still alive and not residing with Him so that he could be reunited with his old friends and especially with his beloved Abadeet. He would ask the question, slowly and deliberately framing it in his mind, in a manner which he thought would indicate to the maker that he showed the proper respect, that he did not overstep his position as a humble man still among the living, but that he merely thought his age and the fact that he had lived what he considered to be a good life entitled him to a response. Then he would sit and patiently await an answer. He usually fell asleep.
In spite of the fact that Chumba thought that he had led a good life, there were many who would not agree with him. A life as seen through the eyes of the individual living that life often takes on qualities and aspects not at all seen or appreciated by the objective observer. And for those who come in contact with that person, their view is often quite contrary since they see the other’s life through there own equally flawed eyes. In point of fact, Chumba had led a good life, at least until his wife, whom he had loved with a singular devotion, died of Malaria many years ago. Inconsolable for a full year after her death, he sat outside their simple dwelling, letting his family and friends bring him sustenance and take care of their two young children, but refusing all efforts to involve him once more in the life of the village. He would disappear for days at a time, much to the consternation of his family, and walk alone through the heavy growth and wooded plains that surrounded the small settlement. Finally, thirteen months after his wife died, Chumba picked up his children, packed their few belongings and said goodbye to family and friends. Although by most people in the large cities of the world this would not be considered at all unusual, it was quite extraordinary by the standards of his culture; and the people of the village, after futile attempts to change his mind, only looked at him with sad eyes, shaking their heads and whispering to each other. It was due, they thought, not merely to the grief that he suffered, but to a certain arrogance, a flaw in his personality that allowed Chumba to believe that bad things should not happen to him because he was better than other people. None of these thoughts occurred to Chumba. He knew only that he need to be away from the memories that haunted him and, as so many do, mistakenly thought that the repository of a life now gone could be in a physical place. And so, early on the morning of his departure, he set fire to their wood, mud and grass house, leaving everything that belonged to his departed Abadeet inside. The once familiar objects only served to rekindle the hurt, loss and anger that flamed within him, even as the fire now destroyed what he took to be the physical incarnation of that overwhelming hurt. The smoke slowly spiraled upward in the calm morning air, an occasional light breeze carrying the smell of burnt memories to him, stinging his eyes. When only a smoldering circular pile of debris remained, he turned, and taking his children in tow, walked out of the village without once looking back. Although his nostrils were soon free of the smell of smoke, the memories of his past life were still inexorably enmeshed in his mind. He left the village with more baggage than he knew.
Chumba walked for many days, shunning the villages where he knew his relatives lived, preferring instead the anonymity of the small cities or the isolation of the open plains. If it were not for his young children he would never have stopped walking and might very well have become one of those perpetual wanderers that one encounters from time to time, carrying their meager possessions from village to town and on to the next village, in search of some undefined mark, a nebulous goal that even they could not define. After two weeks Chumba passed through a small enclave of huts where the villagers knew his tribe from past trading and were on good terms, but where he had no relatives. Passing through this little village he continued for several kilometers until the wooded terrain opened up to a pleasant meadow, surrounded on three sides by thick stands of trees. The fourth side was bordered by scrub and young saplings and offered a view of the wide expanse of plain beyond, where large herds of wildebeest and topi shimmered in the afternoon heat. Here he would make a new home for himself and his children.
The months spent building their house were the best that he had known in quite a while. The hard work was a distraction; and as often happens when a cure is not available, a distraction must suffice. Just how successful this strategy became was attested to by the size of his house, for it was easily five times larger than any of his neighbors in the nearby village and certainly larger by far than any he had known in his own village. And the quality, too, surpassed that which was known in the region. Chumba built a house, not a hut, a house whose walls were made of wood rather than the woven and staked twigs of most dwellings in the area and whose floors were finely smoothed planks. If it were possible to make the boards any smoother he would have, because the untold hours spent concentrating on evening the surface of that wood pushed his demons further into his unconscious and led to a state which he interpreted as tranquility, but which would be better described as denial or, perhaps more appropriately, ignorance.
In any case, he had provided his children with a house; and if he was not all that a father should be, at least he made sure that they were protected from the elements, had food to eat and clothes to wear. He saw to it that they attended school, impressed upon them the importance of learning, and encouraged them to play with the other children. Recluse though he was, he knew that his children’s place in the world should not be held to that of an out of the way house at the fringe of the African plain. And so they grew, both in body and mind, and as their outlook expanded, so their father’s contracted. Although they lived in the same house, they inhabited different worlds; and when the ebb and flow of life, the happenings in the world around them, beckoned to them, they left the eddy of their father’s insular existence and were quickly swept into the current of society. Chumba was not happy to see them go for he knew that one of his last ties to the world around him would now be severed. He did not, however, hold them back in any way, but rather, offered them encouragement and assurances that he would be all right. On the day that they left, both bound for the town 10 kilometers away where the bus would take them to the city and the university, Chumba said farewell, told them again not to worry, and, after watching them until they were out of sight, turned his chair away from the direction they had taken and sat staring out at the African plain. As the sun approached the horizon and took on hues of red and gold, he still sat, slowly rocking himself in his chair. Off to his left the movement of a group of reticulated giraffes caught his eye, and he shifted his gaze to them as they moved majestically across the plain to the next acacia tree. In a small town along a dusty main road, he had once seen a postcard outside a shop, that pictured a giraffe at sunset with the golden orb of the sun behind it. The beauty of it stopped him in his tracks; and he stood there, transfixed, staring and wondering why he, who had lived here all his life, had never seen such a sight. Chumba looked back at the setting sun as the giraffes began stripping the leaves that made up their evening meal and he thought how nice it would be if they were set off against the backdrop of that blazing sphere, but he did not think they would oblige. He wanted very much to see with his own eyes what was pictured on that postcard years ago.
The next day Chumba awoke to a ripping sound and upon throwing open the shutters of his bedroom found he was staring at a rather large hippopotamus pulling up great clumps of grass from the meadow that reached to within several meters of his house. Now this both amused and puzzled Chumba for it was most unusual to see a hippo so far from water, but even though he could not comprehend why such a thing had occurred, it was, nonetheless, funny to see such a large beast calmly munching on his grass, as if it were a breakfast guest curbing its appetite while it waited to be invited in. After his amusement passed he became worried because such a large and powerful animal could easily demolish his house if it set its mind to it. However, Chumba had nothing to fear. After twenty minutes or so the great beast lumbered off into the forest, presumably, he thought, returning to the river about a kilometer away.
Spending little time thinking about the unusual event of the morning, he went about his chores and began cleaning the rooms of his two children. He straightened them up and started to think that he should store away most of the items left behind because he knew in his heart that it was unlikely they would return, except for a rare visit and, perhaps, upon his death. However, something welled up inside him, some emotion that he did not understand, neither in its origins nor its meaning, a feeling that was nevertheless strong enough to stay his proposed action. He did not understand why, but he simply closed the door to each of their rooms and turned away. The rest of the day he sat in his chair and stared out at the plain. When he retired for the night, it was with a sense of anticipation and apprehension. Again, emotions whose origins he could not fathom. Restlessness and strange dreams dogged his sleep and Chumba woke up tired and apprehensive the next morning.
Throwing open the shutters he wondered if he would see the hippo again. Perhaps worry about the animal had been the cause of his uneasiness. With both relief and disappointment he scanned an empty meadow. Busying himself with the preparation of a breakfast that was far more elaborate than his wont, he passed much of the morning. When, finally, the last of it was consumed or put away for later, he made his way to the porch to begin the lonely vigil he kept, sitting in his rocker and staring off into the plain or the nearby forest, the solitary observer of he knew not what. Chumba opened the front door and was stopped in his tracks by what he saw. A lioness lay in the tall grass, not twenty meters from his door, and calmly licked her paws, grooming herself, with only an occasional glance in his direction. One hand still on the doorknob and the other pressed against the door jamb, Chumba stood there in disbelief and amazement for quite some time before slowly shutting the door. He noticed that his knees felt weak and his hands trembled slightly and it was only then that he became consciously aware of the potential danger of this killer that sat outside his house. For calm as the lioness seemed, and as graceful and elegant as it appeared, it was, nonetheless, the supreme hunter of the African plain. He slumped in a nearby chair to try to think this out, his breathing still heavy. Suddenly, he jumped up and closed the shutters on all of the windows and, as an afterthought, bolted the front door before sitting again. No sooner was he settled in the chair than he arose again and began pacing back and forth, occasionally peeking out between the shutters at the lioness, still at its leisure, enjoying the cool quiet of the morning. What was it doing so close to the village, not to mention the fact that it was right in his front yard? He pondered this for several minutes, unable to come up with a reasonable explanation. The animal, by its behavior, was not in a hunting mode, nor had it just completed a kill, and also unusual was the fact that it was alone; there was no sign that he could see of a nearby pride. Chumba was still lost in thought when he heard a loud snort and the trampling sound of something big treading on the tall grass. Hurrying to the side window he peered out, his pupils dilating and an audible sucking in of his breath coinciding with his recognition of the hippo from the day before. The large animal slowly ambled to within ten meters of the house, glanced up briefly at Chumba, then lowered it’s head and began tearing clumps of grass from the meadow, idly chewing as its ears twitched to fend of insects, moving rapidly and erratically in contrast to the almost slow motion of its giant mouth. As Chumba stared he noticed another set of legs visible just beneath the belly of the great beast, quite small compared to the stump like legs of the hippopotamus that filled much of his field of vision. “This is just not possible,” he thought. Quickly moving to another window for a different vantage, Chumba threw back the shutter without any attempt at discretion, and confirmed what he thought he saw. Behind the hippo was its young calf. As each unlikelihood followed another it became easier to accept a new unusual event, but the casual presence of a young hippo and a lioness almost within spitting distance of each other was just too much to believe. He hurried back to the front window to see if perhaps the lion had left but, sure enough, it lay there, occasionally licking its paws and looking serenely content. Chumba sank into a chair, quite perplexed and out of breath although he had not done anything physically taxing. He stared blankly as a myriad of thoughts raced through his head. “Who can I tell? Will they believe me? How can I leave the house without being killed by the lion? Why is this happening to me?” The last question turned around and about in his head, seemingly with a throbbing urgency and Chumba began to think that what was happening was not a random quirk of animal behavior but something much more significant, something that was in fact happening to him for some specific, as yet unknown, reason. As he pondered this, slowly rocking in his chair, he heard a faint high pitched noise and cocked his head to one side, turning his best ear toward the window. The sounds grew louder and he recognized the laughing and squealing of the young children from the village. “Damn them,” he thought, “they’ll scare away my animals!” In the blink of an eye he appropriated the animals and their unusual behavior as belonging to him and the children as interlopers in his private world. Chumba dashed to the door, threw it open and began yelling at the children entering the meadow surrounding his house. It was only after the children had fallen silent that he realized the hippos and the lion were nowhere to be seen. He turned left, then right, then peered around the corners of his house, then turned completely around. To the children this was a funny sight and they looked at each other and at the old man and began giggling. Chumba yelled at them again and stormed back into the house, but not before scanning the area again for “his” animals. As the door clicked shut behind him, the children advanced into the meadow and began to play.
For the past year or so the children of the nearby village had adopted the meadow surrounding Chumba’s house as their own playground, since all the ground closer to the village was too wooded to allow them to play any kind of decent game of soccer or even to just run around aimlessly with the apparent purposefulness that only the young can bring to such an endeavor. Chumba did not like them playing there and would yell at them; but after an initial retreat the youngsters would return and after a few weeks it became apparent to all concerned that the perseverance of the kids far outweighed the determination of Chumba to evict them. And so an uneasy truce prevailed, the children keeping what they considered a respectful distance from the house and by and large ignoring him. Chumba would yell at them from time to time but, for the most part, did nothing more than that, except perhaps occasionally shaking his fist.
While it was true that almost all of the children ignored him, there were two that did talk to him from time to time although their encounters were more often confrontations than anything else. Juji, ten years old, with a quick wit and a bearing beyond his years, was the acknowledged leader of the group. When the children first began to play in the meadow and Chumba would run out to yell at them, it was Juji who paraded up to the porch and stood, arms akimbo, not two feet from him and said, “Old man, why are you so angry? You should not yell at us! We are not hurting you; we do not steal from you or damage your property. We just want to play.” Chumba had stood there, quite taken aback, the color rising in his face. Then he began to yell and shake his fists and, as brave as he was, Juji nonetheless took several steps back, contemplating whether a full retreat was in order. It was then that his younger sister, Elumbu, strode right up onto the porch where the boy and the man stood facing each other. She walked between them and in an exaggerated stance that only a five-year-old can assume, planted her legs widely apart and held each arm straight out to her side, palms facing outward. She looked like a drunken police officer stopping traffic at a busy intersection.
As she shook her head slowly from side to side Elumbu said in her most parental voice, “Play nice or you’ll have to sit by yourself!”
In earlier years Chumba would have burst out laughing but now his anger suppressed any such lightheartedness and he shouted at them, “Just go away and leave me alone!” Turning his back on the children he stormed into his house and slammed the door. Looking at each other with puzzled faces, Juji and Elumbu slowly walked down off the porch and, along with the other children, retreated to the edge of the meadow, and continued their games.
Over the ensuing weeks more and more animals appeared in the early morning hours in the field surrounding his house. Grazing animals and predators. Birds of all sorts. A conglomeration of African wildlife that had no business being together. Later each morning, as if on cue, the animals would walk off into the surrounding woods and brush, the birds would take wing and the meadow would fall silent. After a brief interval the sounds of the approaching children would penetrate the quiet and soon their laughter and squeals filled the air.
This pattern continued for many months until one day, near the beginning of the new school year, the early morning quiet was broken not by the noises of the usual menagerie, but by the penetrating clamor of an approaching jeep as it loudly ran through its gears. Chumba stood in his doorway, holding the handle of the partly open door and watched the approaching vehicle, his gaze alternating between the jeep and the dust cloud it left in its wake. His eyes moved from one to the other as if following a tennis match. After a few moments he found himself staring more and more at the dust, watching it swirl up, float lazily in the air and then slowly dissipate. He became lost in a memory from a time long ago, his eyelids fluttered closed and the smell of smoke seemed to fill his nostrils. He was jerked back to the present by the honking of a horn as the army green jeep, bearing the insignia of the Ministry of the Interior, came to a stop in front of his house. It was driven by a sergeant wearing camouflage fatigues as well as a bored, somewhat irritated expression, as if this drive to a distant house near a remote village was an intrusion on some project he had planned for the day.
In the back seat sat a young man wearing a light-colored suit that seemed a size too big, and rimless spectacles that seemed too small. A thin leather briefcase was on the seat next to him, its metal clasps glinting in the morning sun. The young man hesitated a moment, expecting that the sergeant might open the door for him; but since the driver sat almost motionless, staring ahead with a disinterested expression and thinking of all the more useful things a man of his obvious talents could be doing, the representative of the Ministry of the Interior sighed, opened the door and slid his six-foot-one-inch body out of the vehicle. He reached back to retrieve his briefcase and then walked in a rather stiff, almost military posture to the porch and up the steps, stopping in front of Chumba, who still stood holding on to the door. The Second Assistant to the Subminister of the Interior, for that was his official title, was quite thin in addition to being tall, and this combination, coupled with his youthful appearance, made his movements seem somewhat awkward, an attribute made worse by his poorly fitting suit. However, it was his voice that was most striking, for the deep resonant sounds, almost lyrical in quality, that emerged were in such contrast to the physical image which he projected, that a listener, meeting him for the first time, was quite taken aback. “Good morning, I expect that you are the one called Chumba.” He held out a bony hand.
Chumba, almost as amazed by his current visitor as he was by the appearance of the animals months ago, stood staring for a moment, and just before the pause became awkward, replied, “Yes, that is my name. I am Chumba.” He accepted the skeletal hand. It was cold and dry.
“Well, sir, the Ministry of the Interior has something important it must discuss with you. Can we go inside?”
They sat by an irregularly shaped low table, about a meter in greatest dimension, fashioned from a single piece of a fallen Acacia tree. Its top was bare except for two small carved animals, “Chumba’s animals”, the first two of the many that visited his property each day and which were the first in a series he planned to whittle. The Second Assistant Subminister sat in a simple chair, made of mangrove wood, its various members held tight by twisted reeds, rubbed smooth and polished with acacia oil. He placed his briefcase flat on the table, careful to avoid the wooden animals. Chumba pulled his inside rocker across the table from the young man and nervously rocked back and forth.
Placing his hands on his knees, leaning forward slightly, and under the watchful eyes of the hippo and the lioness, the ministry man began, “The land where you live, where this house is located, is very special. It is special to all of the people of our country, and, in fact, to all of the people of the whole world. For this reason the Ministry believes it must be preserved and protected.” Here he paused and leaned back , as if this brief prologue had sufficed to impart all the meaning, significance and consequences of this edict from the Ministry of the Interior.
Chumba continued his rocking and stared expectantly at the suited man, waiting for him to go on. The deep voice, preceded by the merest of sighs, continued; and when, after several more minutes, the real significance of what he was saying became clear, Chumba continued to look at him although he no longer heard what was said. For what he presented made Chumba weak-kneed and ill. The land around his house, the woods, the meadow he looked out upon and the plains beyond were all to be part of a new game preserve being developed by the Ministry. Of course, no private dwellings could be allowed and even though the boundary of the new park was to be just one hundred meters to the south of his house, Chumba would have to move. No exceptions could be allowed the young man from the ministry emphasized; everything must be done strictly according to the laws of the land and the rules of the Ministry of the Interior. There would be some sort of compensation from the government for the loss of the house; but the economy being what it was, it would not amount to very much, certainly not enough to have a new house built, and that was what would certainly have to be done since Chumba was too old to build another house himself.
The agent from the Ministry talked for what seemed to be a very long time, then reached forward and released the latches of his briefcase. The crisp staccato snap as they popped open caused Chumba to blink and refocus his attention on the man sitting opposite him. “Here is the order from the ministry of the Interior, signed by the Minister and the President himself,” the agent said as he removed a small sheaf of papers and placed them almost reverently on the table. “And here is a statement that everything has been explained to you–and a place here,” pointing with an extended finger, “for you to sign your name or make your mark, indicating that you agree with and accept the order.” A brief pause. “Not that you have any choice, I’m afraid, but still, everything must be done properly.” Still holding the papers in front of him in his left hand, he reached in his jacket pocket with the other and produced a pen which he offered to Chumba. Chumba made no move to take either the pen or the papers; and finally, after an awkward clearing of the throat the young man put down the papers on the table and returned the pen to his pocket, making sure that the clip was properly engaged on the front of the pocket. “I will return in ten days to pick up the signed statement.” “You must be out of your house in 60 days. Bulldozers will begin demolition on that day.” He closed his briefcase, his thumbs moving in synchronized arcs as they shut the latches. He stood up, thanked Chumba for his time, walked to the door and down the steps to the waiting jeep.
Chumba continued to rock as the sound of the car receded in the distance. Holding on to the two figurines he had carved with such care, he shut his eyes and a silent tear welled up in his eye and rolled down his grizzled cheek before it was swallowed up by the dry air. For the next several days he did even less than usual, spending almost the entire day sitting in his outside rocker on the porch and staring out at the plains. He ate little, slept only briefly and fitfully, and barely noticed the animals that still surrounded him each morning, or the children that surrounded him each afternoon. Usually a man of action, Chumba did not know what to do.
Finally, after a week, Juji walked hesitantly up the steps and over to where Chumba sat in his rocker staring out at the plain. Chumba seemed not even to notice his approach, and it was not until Juji said his name twice that he turned to look at him. “What is the matter with you, old man? You don’t even yell at us any more. Are you sick?”
A fleeting, melancholy smile crossed his face as Chumba thought about his life during the past months; and at that instant he realized how much the spirits of the children and the animals had in common and how, in his surprise and joy over the unusual appearance of the animals, he had resented, ignored and taken for granted the more familiar miracle of children playing. It was, indeed, a miracle, he thought. These noisy, running, laughing children were the world’s inheritance from those who had gone before; it was like looking into the future; and with that realization, paternal thoughts, long dormant, welled up in him along with regret for his behavior towards the children. Chumba reached out for Juji, wanting to take his hand or touch his shoulder to let him know that he now understood, but Juji, startled by the movement, took a step back. Sadness suddenly overwhelmed Chumba and tears formed in his eyes. No sooner had this emotion surfaced when Elumbu, who, on silent feet, had followed her brother to the porch, stepped out from behind him and took Chumba’s hand in her two small hands and said, “Don’t cry, grandfather, everything will be alright.”
“He’s not our grandfather,” Juji stated.
“Yes he is! He’s everybody’s grandfather,” she said emphatically.
An emotional dam seemed to burst in Chumba and his tears flowed freely as he attempted to stifle his sobs. Juji, obviously discomforted, took another step back, but Elumbu moved even closer, enfolding both her arms around his outstretched forearm and resting her head on his shoulder. Not willing to yield control of any situation to his younger sister, Juji stepped forward again. “OK, you can be our grandfather.”
“Everybody’s grandfather,” she repeated.
“OK, OK, he is grandfather to us all. He is the grandfather of the world!”
Chumba looked at them both and smiled broadly through his tears. There was so much he wanted to tell them. Where to begin? He laughed out loud and Elumbu joined in while Juji hesitated, looking from one to the other, and then his mouth curled up and he, too, laughed. For a moment, Chumba felt lighter than he had in many weeks; but then his current problem intruded, like the heavy dark thunder clouds that sometimes formed over the plains at the beginning of the rainy season and he was once again enveloped in melancholy. Juji noticed the emotional change and said, with the sound of genuine concern in his voice, “What is wrong, old…” A quick reproving look from his little sister. “What is wrong, Grandfather?”
“Tell us,” she said.
Chumba looked at the two innocent faces looking expectantly at him and wondered if he should burden them with his problem–wondered, too, if they would even understand the enormity of what would happen to him. But who else could he talk to? There was no one. So, with a deep sadness in his voice, he explained what had transpired during his meeting with the representative from the Ministry of the Interior and that he would have to leave this house and this place, both of which he loved more than he had suspected. The children looked at each other and unspoken thoughts must have passed between them because when they looked back at Chumba, they both spoke in unison, “We can move your house!”
Nodding his head, Chumba said, “If only you could.”
“Oh, we can,” Juji intoned.
“Don’t worry,” Elumbu added, as they turned and walked down the porch steps to rejoin and confer with the other children.
He smiled as he watched them hurrying across the meadow, while he silently chastised himself for all of his past anger at these young wonders that might have provided so much of what had been missing from his life for so many years. “Truly, I am a foolish, old and sad man,” he thought. He sat, alone and lost in thought, until the onset of the cool evening breezes roused him. Chumba stood, scanned the darkening plain stretched out before him, slowly directing his gaze from the far left to the far right, as if looking for something, then turned and went into his house. After a light supper he retired for the night. He slept soundly that night, and more deeply than he had in many years. If dreams intruded, they were of the most gentle kind; and a peace, unknown for years, filled his slumbering mind.
The next morning, Chumba was jolted awake. Somewhat confused, he sat up in bed and looked around. He could tell by the sun coming in through the window that he had slept much later than usual. Suddenly his bed seemed to lurch forward and he noticed that the carved hippo he had placed on his night stand was shaking. When he got out of bed he could hardly keep his balance and as he staggered towards the front door he could think only that this must be a major earthquake. Moaning softly, he rushed down the steps and when he looked back at the house, his jaw went slack and he stared, opened mouthed and wide eyed, for his house was indeed shaking and lurching. But there was no earthquake. Chumba stood on solid, unmoving earth and watched as his house slowly, in fits and starts, receded inch by inch. He now became aware of shouting and yelling, high-pitched orders barked out from every direction mingled with snorts, trumpets and assorted animal noises. Tied to his house were numerous ropes, perhaps hundreds, all stretched taught. Hurrying to the side he saw that these all led into that part of the meadow to the south of his house and there, tethered to the lines, was an army of animals. Every beast imaginable. Every animal that had ever come to visit the meadow and many more besides. If this collection was like an army, then Juji was the general, standing out in front and urging on his troops, with little Elumbu running from the hippos to the elands shouting encouragement. Even the children held tight to one rope and strained to contribute what they could. It was too much for Chumba. He sank to his knees, slowly pitched back to a sitting position and watched, completely dumbfounded, as his house inched its way south until it came to rest beyond the boundary of the new park. The ropes went slack and a collective sigh of relief arose, animal and human voices mingling together.
Juji strode over to where Chumba sat, followed by several of the children and a few of the animals. “I told you we could move your house.” A big grin, seemingly larger than the small face it inhabited, spread out as he continued, “Now, you don’t have to move and we can all come to play each day.” The lioness stepped out from behind Juji, brushed past him and walked over to Chumba. She slowly nodded her head, then turned her face towards Juji and, looking back once more at Chumba, turned with feline grace and walked off into the meadow. Elumbu rushed up to Chumba, took his hand and tried to pull him up to a standing position.
“Let’s go into your new house, Grandfather. It is a new house, you know, because it’s in a new place, so we must go and see if it looks any different.” With her brother’s help they walked Chumba the hundred or so yards to the house as the army of animals disbanded. On unsteady legs, his mind a spinning vessel of half formed and confused thoughts, he let himself be guided by the children to his new home and when he walked into his once familiar house and sat in his well-worn rocker, running his fingers over the arms, feeling all the well-known curves and imperfections in the wood he was, nonetheless, overcome by the sensation that he was indeed in a new and somewhat strange place.
The children stayed with him the rest of the day and just before sunset Elumbu prepared a light supper which she left on the table for him. She and her brother said good-by, and with their concern for him visible on their faces, asked Chumba once more if he would be OK, before turning and starting the walk back to their village. “See you tomorrow,” they shouted back in unison as they headed across the meadow.
Chumba sat for some time further in his rocker, and it was not until the moon had risen high in the night sky that he eased his exhausted body up and went to the table to eat his evening meal. He felt somehow troubled. He noticed a strange new feeling and tried to concentrate in order to identify it and perhaps find its cause. Suddenly, fork in mid-transit, he paused, and as the new feeling washed over him in rolling crescendos, he realized that what he now felt was peace. And as the realization struck him full force, Chumba began to cry, great heaving sobs of joy and relief, the kind of tears known only to those who, fearing the tragic death of a loved one, are thankfully surprised to find him alive and well. Chumba had found himself again, after many years, alive and, yes, still well, although certainly showing the effects of the passage of time. Peace. Peace with the children, with the animals and, at long last, peace with himself.
That night he slept deeply. When he woke, there were several animals as usual in the meadow, as if nothing at all had happened the day before. Chumba knew, though, that things were different now and in fact, would never be the same again. Later that day when the children came he sat on the porch and watched them, waving from time to time, and once, even going down the steps to join them in a game of catch. Over the ensuing weeks, children would come up the porch to ask him a question or just to talk to him and soon he knew them all, but Juji and Elumbu remained his favorites and they would often talk for long periods, Chumba truly becoming the grandfather neither had. The peace and lightness that he felt not only lifted Chumba’s spirits but seemed to imbue him with renewed physical strength and a sense of well being.
This halcyon time went on for many months, a year passing in the blink of an eye. Soon thereafter, however, the children noticed that Chumba descended from his porch less and less until one day in early autumn Juji realized that he had not ventured farther than his front porch for several weeks. Chumba, too, noticed a difference, felt the vitality ebb, only to be replaced by an ever more pernicious fatigue and he sensed that he would soon be leaving this world which, until recently, had been only a source of anguish and pain. This did not frighten him, nor did it sadden him, but whereas he knew that several years ago he would have faced death with a heavy heart full of guilt, anger and regrets, he could now confront his own mortality with a calm acceptance that would have been unknown to him in years past.
When the day came that he could no longer leave his house to sit on the porch, the children would take turns keeping him company as he sat in his chair and looked out the window, often falling asleep for much of the day. His weakness increased noticeably, day by day, until his time was finally at hand. Little Elumbu gently rocked him as he sat in the worn cane rocker and, standing on her tip toes, reached up and touched his head each time the chair reached the apogee of its backward motion. His slow easy breathing mirrored the contentment and peace that he felt. Slowly turning his head, Chumba gazed out the window at the setting sun and paused in his rocking. As he stared, his lids felt heavy and the scene at which he looked occasionally blurred, although, to tell the truth, the old man never noticed this. The last sounds he heard were the voices of the children rising above the soft noises of the approaching night, Juji’s voice louder than the rest. Chumba smiled. And the last thing he saw, through fluttering lids, was a giraffe walking with infinite grace across the red disk of the setting sun, a shining golden glow outlining the animal and expanding, seeming to fill the whole orb, as if the sun, in setting, was reborn.