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From: Tampa Review
45/46, 2013
pp. 42-45

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Anonymous. Osei Bonsu ("Linguist's Staff") Detail. Asante, Ghana. Mid-20th century. Wood and gold leaf. 10 x 7 x 2 inches (detail). Collection of the paramount chief of Offinso, Ashante, Ghana.

[End Page 42]

Lesi heard the talk of the elders. The news spread like the cough his classmates had last winter, and he had to go. He asked his father to take him. He asked his cousin Gabon. They told him the word he hated most. NO. It was a word that kept his people down for centuries. Mr. Albruni said so in class. NO had the power to end things. That's why Lesi convinced himself he heard another word, maybe two. DO IT.

Awake before the rooster, in the dark of his hut, he took no water. His father was asleep, arms tangling off the edge of the cot, thin legs bent under each other like dead snakes. His mother's orange dress and slippers waited for her by the bed. Lesi didn't light a candle or say a blessing. Rather, he put on shorts and the shirt he wore yesterday, the one with no holes, and slipped out into the darkness before his father could tell him to cut the bread and soak it in goat's milk, then get to school. Before his father could tell him NO.

He followed the paved road that led from Teshi until it became dirt. Where it ended, he saw monkeys climbing in a banyan tree. They reminded him of emperors, their tails swinging to the top throne of the highest branches. The sun rose, a wet tooth behind the tree while the monkeys danced. Their smiles assured Lesi he was on the right path. He trekked over the rolling hills, his tiny feet padding along until he found the train tracks and followed them like a blind child until he heard the whistle, and because he was only blind in one eye, he saw the train approach.

At first all he could see were dots of color: red, yellow, and green. Lesi thought of Mister Albruni standing at the chalkboard, his meat hand over his heart, the paper flag of Ghana by his shoulder. Lesi wondered if Mister Albruni had finished daily recitation by now. The class loved the math tables but Lesi loved what happened before. He loved when Mister Albruni barked at the class like a big black dog with white spots.

First he barked: RED.


Mister Albuni demanded: GOLD.

Many of the classmates were quick. THE MINERALS IN GHANA.

Mister Albuni demanded again: GREEN.

The class screeched THE LAND, trying hard to be louder than each other, louder than teacher. Lesi loved to shout THE LAND. It was under his feet reminding him with each step that he was on earth, a good place to be. Heaven was nice, but it was for later. Earth was for now, his father told him the evening his sister, swimming in his mother's belly, never came home from the clinic. The next day, his mother didn't either.

He ran toward the dots, and when the train whistle blasted again, he tumbled off the tracks and rolled in the burnt grass to stare at the train the elders spoke of with tight tears in their throats. The flag streamed from the window and it wasn't paper. It was silk and bright, waving at Lesi. He waved back, and then quickly got up to watch the first train car fly by. Lesi had never seen a train before, only a picture in a bent book in the back of his classroom. It was stronger than he imagined, made of sinister steel and silver wheels. In his dreams, Lesi witnessed Gabon able to stop a train by holding out his hand. This train was too big for Gabon or any man to stop.

After the engine passed, boxcars followed exactly like the folded tongue Gabon used to sometimes trick Lesi. His cousin would slowly unravel it to show the...

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