---Return to Part 4---
I am writing this letter stopped at a gas station pancake house with my ride. The lady at the cash register says if I’m going to use the mailbox I better hurry up before she closes.
I am thinking of what I will do when I get to the capital. (That’s my news for you since my other letter: I am going west, to disappoint you, to the capital.) Will I stock T-shirts or will I make parts for ships or will I enroll in a university or will I butcher hogs? You may think I wouldn’t butcher hogs, but I would. I have never been picky, not in that way.
You always underestimated me, and you may have thought that leaving me to myself with the house was what would be easiest for me, but the truth is what you did was what was easiest for you. And I don’t think that’s wrong. I am not angry at you or at anyone.
If you find this at what’s left of our house, here is an address in the capital; send a message there if you are in trouble, or if you decide someday you want to come find me.
I know the address you mean.
A slight young man answers the door. He is wearing a three-piece suit, every piece of which is wrinkled. He looks as if he’s just woken from a nap, and you apologize for bothering him, but if he were napping he would not have been so near the door, would not have answered the ring so fast, and either way you don’t need to apologize to him.
“I’m,” you say. “I saw your article in the paper.”
He wakes right up. “Liyo?”
“If you’ll point me to the work office, I can get started.”
His laugh is bright and unexpected; it breaks across the threshold like the flirting of birds in a bush. He invites you in, offers to show you the house. He shows you where you can put your shoes and offers you some slippers, but does not himself bother to put any on. There is a hole in his right sock, on the ball of the heel.
He is older than you but not so far that you two look different around the eyes when you are excited.
He leads you through the house. It is newly his, he explains, the bequest of childless Auntie Desai, and he has not gotten around to cleaning what’s dusty or removing what’s disused. Room after room, connected one to the next: a room for books; a room for china; a room for cooking and one for eating and another, nicer, for dining; and all the others, it seems, for sitting, yet none of them seem to satisfy him; he leads you all the way through till the house dead-ends, a small square room packed completely full of furniture, two sofas and four stuffed highback chairs, with three different laurel-motif fabrics between them, arms so used the upholstery is worn to mesh.
There is nothing to do but sit, yet you wonder if you should do it. Instead of helping he realizes he meant to stop in the kitchen, to get you a drink; he realizes this out loud, apologizes for doing things in the wrong order, and for now leaving you. He promises to be only a minute.
It is not really the cold season, yet you feel on your arms that the room is being made aggressively warm. From where it comes you are not sure; there is a fancy fireplace in the wall, but it is bricked shut and painted over. In the ceiling there is a metal vent faintly wheezing, but it seems impossible that it could be doing all this work alone. On the mantel a gold clock ticks patiently. It is held captive in a glass covered in dust. It tells the time as 6 in the evening, but neither your father nor aunt kept a clock, and you misread it as 12 and several minutes. You question then how dark it seems to be getting so early in the day.
You take your seat on the very edge of an indigo striped ottoman, and sit very stiffly, fearing your presence will leave a mark.
He brings back brown cola in two crystal glasses. Of all the places to sit, he chooses the chair that belongs to your ottoman, behind you. To talk to him, you must turn yourself three-quarters around. You accept the glass from his hand.
“Who brought you?” he asks.
You describe for him your ride, a rasping, nervous widow who owned a hog butchery and whose name might have been something like Pushk. You tell how when you said at the pancake house that you were going to send a letter, she asked to borrow your pen, printed her name three times on a napkin to show she could; how she tore the napkin up into little pieces while you finished writing.
“Not to me?” he says. “The letter.”
No, you say. To your father. You tell him the pancakes were good. You thank him for the money.
“You walked here from where?” he asks.
“From the feed store.”
“Off R2?” he groans. “That’s far.”
You thank him again for the money.
“What’d you write your father for?”
“Just a habit.” You have drunk all your cola. You roll the empty glass between your hands. “It won’t reach him. The house is gone.”
“So you told me,” he says. He squeezes the arm of his chair to pull himself from the quicksand of weathered cushion, to straighten himself up. He folds his legs under him, glossy underside of his foot showing through the hole in his sock. “Are you going to tell me the rest of the story? So I can finally be proven wrong, and fall off my high horse?”
You shrug. “The land grew too fast, all in the same direction. Like it was growing toward me. The plants and the grass and the trees. And eventually they came through the floor and the walls.”
“Let me try,” he says, and he narrates, with overbearing drama, the month your horizon began to change: how the bare flat line of the horizon went fuzzy, interrupted by poky saplings where trees had never been; he describes the next month, when the sky shrank, hidden behind a mile-long army of grown-up spruces. And how you in your father’s house stayed, noticing, but not permitting the knowledge, as the long-dry land began to green over, began to creep, began to encroach on the house, encircling it with tall stands of cogon grass, with spindly devilweed. How you stayed until one day a spear of tree trunk broke through the bathroom floor, and like a fox flushed out of its warren, the only decision you could make was a fast one, tripping toward the door over crowning roots, the windows choking before you with woody vines, going dark, and then shattering. How you forced your way free just in time to watch the big chestnut-oak come groaning through the roof, to see the house collapse on its center.
(The end is wrong. I saw you as you waited, watching the whole of the dark he describes come down upon you, watching as I delivered you swiftly free of the wreckage. But the broad strokes are right. Besides, you are rapt.)
“Did you make all that up?” you ask. “Just now?”
“No,” he admits with a hint of regret. He puts his feet up on your ottoman, takes a long sip, makes the cola noise. “I’ve read a lot of articles.”
“Do you believe them now?”
“I never didn’t. I just don’t want to be afraid for any longer than I need to.” He takes the empty glass you are rolling like clay between your hands and sets it on the carpet out of your reach. You are watching him and he is watching you, and his face is of the family of faces that wears an involuntary smile. His eyes crimp with pity as your fingers wander to the frayed cuffs of your trousers, as you absently twist together the threads.
“Do you think the land is coming here?” you ask.
“Still no signs of it.”
“What will you do if it does?”
He sighs. “I’d burn the place down I think,” he says. “There’s an awning in the back with five years of firewood stacked up. Feels like using it as kindling might have been what Auntie wanted.”
“Why not just let the land take it?”
“The land loves a blank canvas, doesn’t it? Might as well just take it all down before it gets here, and let it start over.”
“Why, though? This is a nice house.”
“I was probably kidding,” he says, smiling with teeth now, very straight and very white. “Want some more?” He raises his own glass, still half-full.
He winds through rooms with you into the kitchen, clearing away a number of old drinks left out unfinished as he goes, rinsing and depositing your glass in the sink. From the cupboard he delivers you a new, empty one, which he lets you decide how to fill. You do not open his refrigerator. You run yourself some water from the tap and the both of you stand in the kitchen, leaning lightly against different counters, and you drink till your drinks are gone, and the darkness starts to fall outside.
“Do you think,” you say. “Should I go to the work office first thing? Or are there some places here you would recommend for getting a job?”
“Is that your next move?” He puts his glass under the faucet, and now there are six rinsed glasses in the sink.
“In the morning, when everything opens back up,” you affirm. Then, haltingly: “You said there were hostels, where people can stay the night?”
“Liyo,” he says sternly. “Of course I will give you a room. Auntie was the wife of a general; there are a thousand beds. There is dinner; I will make it. You can turn your whole life around in the morning. For tonight, leave things to me.”
He reaches, and waits there, watching his open hand until you put your glass in it. The night is arrived outside, blacking out the lace-curtained windows. He flips a switch and the kitchen is suddenly spotlighted, little lightbulbs in the ceiling winking diamonds off the steel of the sink, the wetted glasses in it. Seven of them spent and only two people.
And infuriatingly in this moment I have lost my access to your thoughts; I do not know what you are thinking; I do not know what you want.
I know you do not want me in, and so I keep still, to myself, outside.
I got your letter, one of them. You talk like there might have been another one, if so, that one I didn’t get. The house is still gone but the post office is holding everyone’s mail. That’s where I went when I got into town and where I got the message. So, the capital. I don’t remember saying the things you said I said about it. I am sure you will do fine there. There is nothing much here to take care of a person that doesn’t have a house standing and stocked, so I think you did right to move along. I don’t think I’m so bad off myself. I’ll figure out something to do in town. But you said to write and I thought I’d say I got your letter, so you’d know. I wanted you to know I came back. I was surprised you weren’t here, I hadn’t heard yet about the land, and didn’t know. I guess I should say sorry for leaving you. It’s been years since she tried to take you, since you were a baby and she pulled you into the bush. She has been away since, and quiet, I didn’t think she would come in. If you want my opinion, which you may not, I don’t think you should try to shake her, and I don’t think you should go where she goes, either. I would keep wherever you are, where she can see you, and where she thinks you’re going to stay put.
---Continue to Part 6---