PETRIFIED FLAMINGO, LAKE NATRON, 2010

Photo by Nick Brandt

 

 

To move as a river does, to be carried forward by my own unfolding.

A river knows no discouragement, only persistence. A river doesn’t care where you’ve been, what you’ve seen or what has brought you here into the reeds beside it. It says only enough to entice the removal of your shoes. It says only enough to remind you that we all get where we need to be in the end. The river always knows.

Always kick a rock over before lifting it up and always shake out your boots before putting them on – especially out here in Africa. I sat in the mud and the phragmites watching the water move, listening to the murmur and the rumbling, remembering how my father used to tell me that.

“See how it glitters and glimmers in the sun?” said Amos Changa, an old fisherman I had befriended from a nearby village. He moved his knotty, rough hand in a flowing motion – imitating the river’s meandering course. “It is as if the river is smiling at us, no?”

I nodded.

“But I am wary,” he added quietly. “For some days I doubt the river’s friendship…”

Beneath the sparkling surface, the water was dark, and seemed to contain many writhing things. I knew this unsure feeling of which Amos whispered, here in the reeds beside me, for I had felt it many times since my arrival here on these muddy banks where the songs of the river ended.

Eat to live; do not live to eat – Another one of my father’s gems. Somewhere out here, in this river before us, were monsters eating with an appetite unimaginable, unfathomable. There was a serene brutality here, and through those waters swam many things unseen.

I shut my eyes.

I could feel the hum of the earth, the gentle sound of water carving a path through the dry lands. The stream burbled over loose rocks and pebbles, carrying them away tumbling into new places. A calm breeze rustled the reeds.

A river pronounces the strangest things, over and over, whispering things one can only hear with the heart. These moving roads my father used to travel, some days it seems the waters flow to the left, other days to the right, and I spend most of the time hiding my pale skin in the shade, waiting for a crocodile to eat one of the river Baptists.

At least, that would make sense.

 

***

My father said he wouldn’t respect a river if it let him wade across to the other side.

By day I walked the muddy banks with Amos, or sat in his pirogue watching him pull catfish and carp from the murky waters as we floated along the current. We were hoping for something bigger than that, but day after day it never came. More giant catfish, more giant carp. Amos never threw a single one back.

By evening I sat quietly at the foot of my father’s bed, the sounds of mosquitoes and his labored breathing droning around the little hut. Sometimes I would stand by the window, looking out at the light dance across the distance, where at dusk the children would splash and laugh and call each other’s names from the gathering darkness.

I waited for the screaming, but this too, wouldn’t come.

The nights were black and thick and hot, and when everybody had gone to sleep and my father had settled – I saw no gleaming eyes peering at me from the river banks.

I sat beside the old man with my hand upon his shoulder, feeling the shallow rise and fall of his chest. Watching his large nostrils flare. I would sleep and awake in the morning sun, and he would still be there with his jaw slack and his tongue hanging out – and I found myself missing the days where he would simply ramble incoherently or suddenly lunge forward and fall from his chair. He used to have green eyes, now, I wasn’t sure. They grew dimmer and dimmer every day.

Some mornings, in the bright light of daybreak, I would check his pulse to see if he was still there. I would ask him if this was what he still wanted.

Progression, sometimes it travels downwards in an unstoppable spiral. Sometimes the only progress you make is in the advancement to your own lonely end.

 

***

Lake Natron of Northern Tanzania has red water, my father told me. Water red as blood. From the sky looking down it seems as if one were gazing at the blistering scales of a lizard, as if a rash were stretching across the bottom of the lake.

“There are creatures who survive there,” he said quietly and carefully on a day which seemed so long ago. Back when he could still speak without choking on himself.

You pay for everything, one way or another, sooner or later.

“There are flamingos, so many flamingos,” and I pictured them wading about in giant flocks on stilt-like legs, filtering the crimson water with their large beaks for the red algae they fed on. Screaming, always screaming.

“The surface is bright and flat, like a giant, undisturbed mirror reflecting the sun…”

It seemed a dry and unforgiving place, and on the salty shores of Lake Natron is where this all began, half-buried in the sand and scorching water, what my father discovered there in his youth would forever change his life.

 

***

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The full story – “Where The Rivers Go” – was published by NEW CONTRAST and can be found in ISSUE 172

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