The following is from Mia Couto’s short story “The Waters of Time” for Rain and Other Stories, translated by Eric M.B. Becker and published by Biblioasis. The stories in this collection grapple with the future of Mozambican identity following a brutal civil war; “The Waters of Time” takes the narrator into the world of its spiritual past.
My grandfather, in those days, would take me down the river, tucked into the tiny canoe he called a concho. He would row, lazurely, barely scraping the oar across the current. The little boat bobbled, wave here, wave there, lonelier, it seemed, than a fallen, forgotten tree trunk.
—But where are you two going?
That was my mother’s torment. The old man would smile. Teeth, in his case, were an indefinite article. Grandpa was one of those men who are silent in their knowing and converse without really saying a thing.
—We’ll be back in no time, he would respond.
Not even I knew what he was pursuing. It wasn’t fish. The net remained in place, cushioning the seat. It was a guarantee that when the unappointed hour arrived, the day already twilighting, he would grip my hand and pull me toward the bank. He held me like a blind man. All the same, it was he who guided me, one step ahead of me. I was astonished at his upright gauntness, all of him musclyboned. Grandfather was a man in full-fledged childhood, perpetually enraptured by the novelty of living.
We would climb into the boat, our feet a stroke on the belly of a drum. The canoe pulleyed, drowned in dreams. Before leaving, the old man would lean over one of the sides and gather up a bit of water with a cupped hand. I imitated him.
—Always with the water, never forget!
That was his constant warning. Drawing water against the current could bring misfortune. The flowing spirits won’t be contradicted.
Later, we’d travel as far as the large lake into which our tiny river emptied. That was the realm of forbidden creatures. All that showed itself there, after all, invented its existence. In that place, the boundary between water and earth disappeared. In the unquiet calm, atop the lily-rippled waters, we were the only ones who prevailed. Our tiny boat floated in place, dozing to the gentle lull. Grandfather, hushed, observed the distant banks. Everything around us bathed in cool breezes, shadows made of light itself, as if the morning were eternally drowned in dreams. We would sit there as if in prayer, so quiet as to appear perfect.
Then my grandfather would suddenly stand in the concho. With the rocking, the boat nearly tossed us out. The old man, excited, would wave. He’d take out his red cloth and shake it decisively. Whom was he signaling? Maybe it was no one. At no point, not even for an instant, did I glimpse a soul from this or any other world. But my grandfather would continue to wave his cloth.
—Don’t you see it, there on the bank? Behind the mist?
I didn’t see it. But he would insist, unbuttoning his nerves.
—It’s not there. It’s theeeere. Don’t you see the white cloth, dancing?
All I saw was a heavy fog before us and the frightful beyond, where the horizon disappeared. My elder, later on, would lose sight of the mirage and withdraw, shrunken in his silence. And then we would return, travelling without the company of words.
At home, my mother would greet us sourly. Soon she would forbid me from doing many things. She didn’t want us going to the lake, she feared the dangers that lurked there. First she would become angry with my grandfather, suspicious of his non-intentions. But afterward, already softened by our arrival, she would test out a joke:
—You could at least have spotted the namwetxo moha! Then, at least, we’d have the benefit of some good luck…
The namwetxo moha was a spirit that emerged at night, made only of halves: one eye, one leg, one arm. We were children, and adventurous, and we’d go out looking for the moha. But we never found any such creature. My grandfather would belittle us. He’d say that, when still a youth, he’d come face to face with this certain half-fellow. An invention of his own mind, my mother would warn. But, being mere children, we had no desire to doubt him.
One time, at the forbidden lake, Grandpa and I waited for the habitual emergence of the cloths. We were on the bank where the greens become reeds, enfluted. They say: the first man was born of these reeds. The first man? For me, there couldn’t be any man more ancient than my grandfather. It so happened that, on this occasion, I hungered to see the marshes. I wanted to climb the bank, set foot on unsolid ground.
—Never! Never do that!
He spoke in the gravest of tones. I had never seen my elder look so possessed. I apologized: I was getting off the boat, but only for a little while. Then he retorted:
—In this place, there aren’t any little whiles. All time, from here on out, is eternity.
I had a foot half out of the boat, seeking the boggy floor of the bank. I sought to steady myself. I looked for ground where I could put my foot down. It happened that I found no bottom— my leg kept falling, swallowed by the abyss. The old man rushed to my aid and pulled me back toward the boat. But the force sucking me downward was greater than our effort. With the commotion, the boat overturned and we fell backwards into the water. And so we were stuck there, struggling in the lake, clinging to the sides of the canoe. Suddenly, my grandfather pulled his cloth from the boat and began to wave it above his head.
—Go on, you greet him too!
I looked toward the bank but saw no one. But I obeyed my grandpa, waving without conviction. Then something astonishing happened: all of a sudden, we stopped being pulled into the depths. The whirlpool that had seized us vanished in an immediate calm. We returned to the boat and sighed in shared relief. In silence, we split the work of the return voyage. As he tied up the boat, the old man told me:
—Don’t say a word about what happened. Not even to no one, you hear?
That night, he explained his reasons. My ears opened wide to decipher his hoarse voice. I couldn’t understand it all. He said, more or less: We have eyes that open to the inside, these we use to see our dreams. It so happens, my boy, that nearly all are blind, they no longer see those others who visit us. Others, you ask? Yes, those who wave to us from the other bank. And so we provoke their complete sadness. I take you there to the marshes so you might learn to see. I must not be the last to be visited by the cloths.
I lied and said that I did. The following afternoon, my grandfather took me once more to the lake. Arriving at the edge of dusk, he sat there watching. But time passed with unusual sloth. My grandfather grew anxious, propped on the boat’s bow, the palm of his hand refining the view. On the other side there was less than no one. This time, my grandfather, too, saw nothing more than the misty solitude of the marshes. Suddenly, he interrupted the nothing:
And he jumped to the bank as fear stole my breath. Was my grandfather stepping into the forbidden country? Yes. In the face of my shock, he kept walking with confident steps. The canoe wobbled in disequilibrium with my off-balance weight. I witnessed the old man distancing himself with the discretion of a cloud. Until, enveloped in mist, he sank into dream, at the margin of the mirage. I stood there, in shock, trembling in the shivering cold. I recall seeing an enormous white egret cut across the sky. It looked like an arrow piercing the flanks of the afternoon, making all the firmament bleed. It was then I beheld on the bank, from the other side of the world, the white cloth. For the first time, I saw the cloth as my grandfather had. Even as I doubted what I saw, there, right alongside the apparition, was my grandfather’s red cloth, still waving. I hesitated, disordered. Then, slowly, I removed my shirt and shook it in the air. I saw the red of his cloth becoming white, its color fading. My eyes misted until the visions became dusk.
As I rowed a long return, the old words of my old grandfather came to mind: water and time are twin brothers, born of the same womb. I had just discovered in myself a river that would never die. It’s to that river I now return, guiding my son, teaching him to glimpse the white cloths on the other bank.
From Rain and Other Stories by Mia Couto. Used with the permission of Biblioasis. English translation © Eric M.B. Becker, 2019.