Creative Nonfiction: Homecoming by Wendy Newbury

Photo by Chris Newbury

I’m wearing cheap blue market side flip-flops, standing at the edge of a dirt road, red dust salted between my toes. The road veers from the main junction of the city through neighborhoods riddled with cotton and kola trees, concrete homes with makeshift rusty zinc roofs, then bends in front of our yard. I’m always seven when I visit.

The sun fades, leaving vibrant residues of cadmium orange, yellow, and red melding into the canvas above like a glazed oil backdrop. I watch it fall. It dips below the horizon, sinking into the murky swamp behind our house, the one that used to terrify me. But soon, our community will find it safe. Like the marsh creatures I imagined creeping about, they’ll hide there, becoming the tree roots intertwined and steeped in mire, watching rebels raid from afar.

Prodigious coconut and palm trees pop at this time of day, their silhouettes stark as tropical stencils against the evening sky. Each seems to bow, as if welcoming me back. Their branches resemble our ancestors’ headdresses, the elongated knobby stems, their tribal walking sticks. I wouldn’t call it homesick. People like to use that word, but for me it doesn’t carry the weight it should. It’s not heavy enough to drown or chain me down to this place. Grief will do.

I can still reach up and pluck leaves off dwarf palms before they wither and fall, their tips already dipped in natural browning before a new cycle. They hover like wilting sepia canopies over me. A light breeze sweeps in, and fronds and spathes palpitate in dance. Their susurrus song rising, billowing, then settling again, but falling for this is a trick. This version of our world no longer exists, so I’m guarded.

To my right, women gossip while grounding palm nuts and spices, mortar, pestle, and chatter in rhythm work. My mother must be one of them. I search every time. Children run barefoot, stretching out the last few minutes of play before dinner and cold bucket baths. I squint to see if I recognize any of them. Childhood friends. Anyone. Myself.

Within seconds, the scene vanishes like I know it will. Time is up and the deafening buzz of static interrupts my thoughts. It’s my father’s old black and silver Panasonic transistor radio. The one he religiously dialed through those last few weeks, devouring the BBC news. Crackle. Distorted voices. Hiss. Static. His gaze flitting, never settling on any one person or thing. Not even me, then black.

When awake, I scold myself. I should have known better. To have gathered more sacred memories. We should have known as kids, playing under that haunting sky, that the earth would open up some day. Had we known, we would have stopped mid-chase during those wild games of tag to catch our breath, secure our passing moments. To look up and around us, savoring it all. I would have held the gaze of people long gone to remember their faces, or record their voices and laughter before silence. Before they disappeared. Before war. All this for safekeeping, so decades later, I won’t have to dream to remember.

Wendy Newbury is an emerging writer who lives in Pasco, WA. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Roi Fainéant Press. She is currently writing a memoir. 

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