BACK TO THE CULTURE by Wayne Samuel (4/8)

It’s been 8 years since it last rained. Everybody’s headed to the stream that flows beneath the rubble of what used to be Third Mainland Bridge. I’m headed in the opposite direction. If what the old woman says is true, then I must see her today. And what better time to go than now, when everyone’s so distracted?

The street I’m on used to be upscale. Solar panel roofs are caved in over large chunks of cement and scrap metal. This was the first to go, the separation of the classes. After the stock market crashed, world governments followed, and those who could flew out of the country. Those who couldn’t stayed and watched as poor people began to encroach on their territory. With resources depleted, handiwork became luxurious. The man that cut your hair could now afford to be your neighbour. Rent was cheaper too. Highbrow communities soon became ghettos. And my father had a choice. He saw the way the Barber looked at my mother. Knew there was no police to report to when the Barber and his friends broke into our house and cleaned out the kitchen cabinet because there was nothing else worth stealing. We weren’t home, but what would happen the next time or the time after that? So, he sent them away, my mother and sister. He sent them to a better place. The US Embassy called it a utopia. What it really was is a Russian moguls business idea after economists told him the doomsday clock was ticking faster than anyone anticipated. The Russian capitalized on civilizations downfall and built a smart city, the only place on earth where things are still good. My father could only afford to send them, we were men, we would survive. I did, not him. The solar flares of 2048 didn’t just cause our crops to shrivel up, it also caused cancer. The brain tumour took my father’s memories, his sanity, and finally, his life.

It’ll be dark soon, and a broken moon would hang in the sky. But I’m close to the old woman’s shanty. She would show me this truth. The one she says will be my salvation. I walk past a public borehole. The tap leaks empty air. That doesn’t stop the little boys from crouching around, waiting for a drop of drinkable water. They look up and watch me with desolation in their eyes. I wish I had something to give them. But I traded everything for the secret the old woman promises to give me.

The old woman, she’s a pariah you see. That’s why I’m going now. So no one would see us together. With all material wealth gone, reputation is all a man has these days. That and his life. With each stride, I feel the heft of the dagger against my thigh. I’ve never had to use it, not yet. When things got really bad, and crime rose to an all-time high, our security forces were the first to turn on us. They had all the weapons, we had all the leftover food. My father said it reminded him of stories his grandfather told. About a time when armed robbers knocked on doors, and politely asked to be let in. Exactly how the men in uniform did, waving their AK-47s around, taking what they wanted.  My father found it funny, how things had come full circle. The politicians were long gone by this time.

“They abandoned us.” My father said. “Something an Oba would never do.”

I told him I didn’t know what an Oba was. He laughed because neither did he. All he had were his grandfather’s stories, about a time when things were better, then worse, then better again.

I wanted to give my father a proper burial, in a graveyard, with a tombstone I could always visit. But that British scientists’ book, the one that became a bestseller when such things still existed. It convinced everyone there was no God, no afterlife, no spirits. According to him when people died they became nothing but carbon, just formless energy, lost to space. I believed that too. But when my father passed, I still felt him beside me. I still saw his shadow shift in the bedroom we shared. I wanted to honour him, as though he lived on. But no one would let me. They insisted I cremate him, as had been standard practice for two decades. Besides, if I buried him I ran the risk of giving the cannibals a new target. So, I did as they asked. Now my father is lost to me, in life and in death.

Smoke billows in front of the old woman’s hut. She is preparing a meal? I draw close. No, not a meal. It appears to be incense. She is strange this woman. I hope I have not sold everything I have for nothing. The smile she offers when she sees me is toothless.

“I’ve been expecting you.” She says, the words escape her mouth like a drawn-out sigh. “Sit and listen.” she instructs.

I gaze around, ensuring no one watches, then I sit on the ground before her. The incense burns between us, offering some warmth on this cold night.

“What is it that you seek?” She asks.

“Answers.” I say, certain that she is only toying with my emotions. Surely, she knows why I have come.

“Then why does your heart wander?” She asks.

I inhale the sweet scent of the fragrance. Perhaps I have gambled and lost. If the old woman truly had truth to tell me, she would’ve done so by now.

 “It does not.” I reply.

“It does. Your heart wanders. Quite like your father’s did, and his father before him. You question the wisdom of the old. You cling to your reality.”

“My reality is all I know.” I whisper.

“And yet your reality was not what created you. This…” She gestures at the chaos around us “This is not your origin, and if you do not know what made you, how can you possibly know what you are made for, or who you are?”

I bite my tongue, then let it loose. “I did not come here for riddles old woman.”

She laughs, a throaty cackle that floats into the night sky like bats. “Riddles you say. You open your ears to the world, believe their fact. You cover your ears at home, call our truth riddles.”

“Tell me then, what is my truth?” I demand.

“The white man misled you.”

“I never met the white man. You speak of a different time.”

“A time that has led to this. They told you to forget your culture, abandon your gods, tear down your temples…”

“Shrines you mean.” I interject. “I’ve heard the stories, your so-called culture allowed terrible things.”

“And what would you call this?” She asks and gestures at the broken city. “We had our shortcomings as all people do, but the path we were on would have never led to this.”

“This was caused by global warming, it has nothing to do with culture.” I state.

“Oh, but it does. The culture you adopted in place of your own. We had much to learn from the white man, but we also had much to teach him. We forgot what we were made of, and thus what we were made for. We could have prevented this.”

“So why are you telling me this? How does this help me?” I ask.

“It will help us all. They won’t listen to me. I’m an old woman. But you, you’re the future, and as such you alone can carry the past.”

“What if I want to leave the past in the past?”

“Then you will remain here, arguing with a ghost!” The old woman hisses, and the incense bursts into flames. I shield my eyes from the light. The fire fizzles out.  All that remains where the old woman sat, is a cloud of smoke. I sit alone in the city that was and wonder, what it could be.

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