Chautauqua Prize Finalist
The anthropologist's wife, an artist, didn't want to follow her husband to the remote desert of northeast Africa to live with camel-herding nomads. But wanting to be with him, she endured the trip, only to fall desperately ill years later with a disease that leaves her husband with more questions than answers. When the anthropologist discovers a deception that shatters his grief and guilt, he begins to reevaluate his love for his wife as well as his friendship with one of the nomads he studied.
He returns to Africa to make sense of what happened, traveling into the far reaches of the Chalbi Desert, where he must sift through the layers of his memories and reconcile them with what he now knows. Set in a windswept wilderness menaced by hyenas and lions, The Names of Things weaves together the stories of an anthropologist's journey into the desert, his firsthand accounts of the nomads' death rituals, and his struggle to find the names of things for which no words exist. Anthropologist John Colman Wood's debut novel is an exquisite, haunting exploration of the meaning of love and the rituals of grief.
|Publisher:||Ashland Creek Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.62(d)|
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The Names of Things
By John Colman Wood
Ashland Creek PressCopyright © 2012John Colman Wood
All rights reserved.
He and the boy had been walking, save a couple of hours in the hottest part of afternoon, since the quarter moon rose at two o'clock that morning. From the settlement of Maikona on the edge of the Chalbi Desert, they skirted the Dida Galgalo plains, where you could look in every direction and not see one tree or even a bush, only lava rubble the color of rotted apples and grass between rocks, yellow as packing straw. The emptiness comforted him. The flat horizon, swept daily by unceasing wind, calmed his mind. He missed the place. He missed the people. But he also wanted the desiccation, the osmotic suck, to wipe his memories clean and blow them away.
They'd left at two o'clock in the morning because the trip at a camel's pace would take them eighteen hours, and they wanted to arrive when the camp was still awake. Two o'clock was also when the moon came up, slim as it was, and they needed its light to load the camels withjerry cans of water and their gear and to find the path amid the stones.
The owner of the camels, the boy's father, had known Abudo, knew where Abudo's camp was, and sent his son to show the way. The foreigner did not remember the boy, who would have been a child before. Now a teenager, Ali was tall, narrow, small shouldered, long legged. His almond face was handsome except for the pebbles of acne around his mouth. Ali refused his mother's help. In the end, she'd stepped in to reposition the loads and tighten the ropes. Ali made up for his lack of skill with teenage indifference. When he smiled, which in the beginning was not at all, the smile was shy and surprising.
* * *
They stopped to rest soon after daylight. So far they'd barely spoken. They sat in the shade of a low-slung tree on the edge of a lagga, a dry seasonal riverbed, and chewed tobacco. The camels, still loaded, browsed lazily at the branches of a nearby tree. The ferenji wore plain khaki shorts and a T-shirt and a canvas hat for the sun. The boy wore a black T-shirt and a kikoi made of Indonesian cloth with a jungle of green and blue potato-print shapes. Both wore sandals made of old tires—young people called them Firestones—the commonest footwear in the desert. The metal band of Ali's watch was too big for his wrist. He kept pulling it up his arm, and it kept falling down to his hand. The watch did not keep time, but it looked smart and Ali was proud of it. He sat with knees crossed and studied the plains beyond the shade.
He asked the boy how old he was.
Kudanijaa, he said. Sixteen.
Are you circumcised?
He might have asked if the boy was in school or played basketball. It was the sort of question he asked. What did Ali think of himself? Was he a boy or a man?
Ali opened the cloth, just like that, and showed him.
His penis lay like a cat against his thigh. The wound, a jagged pink ring.
The man remembered the way he and boyhood friends had shown off playground scars. It wasn't the penis that Ali revealed, or even his new status as a grown-up. It was the sign of where he'd been, what he'd been through, what awaited him. He said he was cut last Soom D'era, a good month for circumcisions.
Ali did not ask the man if he was circumcised. He asked if he was married, and then if it was the custom in his country to pay bride wealth before a marriage and how much.
The man said there was no bride wealth in his country. Then he added, in his own language, for he could not think how to say it in Ali's, that over there one paid for the marriage afterward. Ali did not follow, and the man did not repeat it. But Ali's eyes grew wide with a vision of free women. He was going to have to wait another twenty years before his father and older brother, who must marry before him, would produce the necessary camels, goats, sheep, cloth, and untold amounts of tobacco and coffee berries for the bride's family. In the end, however, Ali likened a free wife to a lover and said it was better if the groom's family paid for the bride. Then the children knew to whom they belonged. The man said he and his wife had had no children, and Ali looked at him sadly, despite his adolescence, because he knew to be sad about such things.
Nuyas, he said. Let's go.
Silence broken, Ali's talk soon outpaced the man's ill-remembered language. By afternoon they were walking again mostly in silence, smiling at each other, noting familiar kinds of tree or bush, stopping to chew and to wonder aloud how much longer.
* * *
Even before they reached Abudo's camp it was too dark to see, and he kept the path by following the camels' silhouettes against the stars. All day the windblown sand had chafed his skin. His neck and arms and calves prickled with sunburn. His feet, which had taken a beating on the rocks, ached. He walked with a sort of double limp, so as not to put full weight on either sole. He'd grown soft in his years away, unused to walking far in sandals. He'd filleted a big toe on an acacia stump first thing, and the blood made his right sandal sticky. In the gloom that evening, he stumbled and reopened the wound. He could feel the slick fresh blood. He cursed himself for coming.
Then he heard the camp noises. Faint, windblown sounds. Clatter of pots. Wooden camel bells. Tinny voices of women and children, like old songs on the radio. He smelled wood smoke and dust and the musky odors of large animals.
As he remembered it, the camp was a collection of some twenty tents, sixty or seventy people, four or five hundred camels, and thousands of sheep and goats. It was pitched now at Toricha, a place of gnarled thorn scrub below the hills of Badda Hurri, far to the north of where they'd started. He remembered Toricha from before. The sounds and smells in the night air were all familiar. But it was not the same. Nomads never camped in the same place twice. It was their business to move, to blow with the wind. Doubtless there would be people here he knew, who remembered him. There would be others he did not know. And there would be those he knew, and loved, who would be gone.
Excerpted from The Names of Things by John Colman Wood. Copyright © 2012 by John Colman Wood. Excerpted by permission of Ashland Creek Press.
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