Looking for the Road
Breytenbach, Breyten, The Virginia Quarterly Review
The urge to get up and go-to travel, to follow the beckoning horizon, to leave oneself behind and thereby approach inner silences and spaces-that need must be as old as our awareness of mankind. Stopovers will be places of the imagination but also stations of survival: a privileged valley, a well with water shining blackly, grazing for the animals, a marketplace with shouts and murmurs of cloth, a town of wise men and unwise women and little bowls holding red sweets, stuffed pigeon breasts, the season just started, a crossing and jostling of stars, the distance where wind is born.
My eye instinctively deciphers the land as if it were a book telling of riddles and of dangers. Nothing belongs to me and yet I am the proprietor of a slew of stars, of that wind now, of this direction here, of these very shadows snaking along the earth. Each journey will be into the unknown, but even so, routes are traced the way thoughts and dreams become words and the words become tracks and the tracks turn to sand. Sand moving in a haze over your vision will be a veil of footsteps-my own, those of the ancestors, those of my companions. Birds will remember me in the sky, their flight an arrow in the soil. That's how you read the paragraphs of my life.
The sun is my shelter, the night my fire.
From the beginning there was the need to go farther and take along what I have to offer-salt, spices, stories, muskets, maybe slaves-to barter for what I must obtain in order to continue. One travels so deeply from language to language (that is, from riverbed to riverbed) that one is no longer a stranger in the place of destination.
One day I will return to where I set out from, with another look in the eye and the resonance of distant places in my imagination. I carry the shadow of a world within, light and transparent like the wings of flies, free from the intersection of time and space. I appear to be the same and yet I will be the foreigner because stained already by the invisible skin of endless hours spent on the road, by strange adventures and unknown cries, by having listened to the night-talk of fellow nomads with whom I shared water and a sunset and now I know them more intimately than my own family. My face will be black. I bring back salt, spices, stories, gods, laughter of unwise men and the whispers of wise women, maybe cloth and gold and knowledge. One looks at one's feet and is astonished. Are they really mine?
Soon now the year will turn and birds migrate in a fluttering of fresh paragraphs. Wind beckons again. There is a new smell from just beyond the skyline. It will be time to go.
There are limits expressed in rhythms, in the return of the line, but no borders. …