Catching the Setting Sun
“Mama, why does the sun go in the water?”
“To let us sleep, son. To let us sleep.”
“Why do we have to sleep?”
“‘Cause we tired. Ain’t you tired?”
“No, I can keep on goin’, and goin’, and goin’ ‘til it’s dark.”
“Well, I won’t allow that.”
Looking towards the setting sun, the mother maintained her controlled demeanor. She counted the days by sunsets and tried to ignore sunrise, as if not thinking about it would make the days go faster. The son, curious and energetic as would be expected for a boy his age, was not satisfied with his mother’s answers.
“Mama, but how can a different sun rise ev’ry mornin’ from the water behind us? How many of them can there be? It’s like we runnin’ from the sun as it comes up, then try to chase it before it goes down in the water.”
“It’s only one sun, dear. He jus’ circles on ‘round us to let us know the end and beginnin’ of days. Ev’rythin’ has a beginnin’ and end. It’s the cycle of life. So don’t worry, the same sun will rise again in the mornin’, shinin’ bright like he does ev’ryday.”
Digging through her few belongings, the mother pulled out pieces of mixed nuts wrapped in a fragment of cloth.
“Okay, I’ll let you stay up a bit, but take this down to your papa before it goes dark. We don’t want him to sleep before he eats, do we?”
The son sprang into action without answering, happily complying with his mother’s request. His youth allowed him to move about with great ease along the wooden floor and stairs that led to his father. He worked his way through long, dark, crowded corridors like a bat in a cave, and found his father lying in the same place he had been lying for the past few days. His father was incapacitated. Although muscular and evidently no stranger to hard labor, the father was no longer swift in his movements.
“Hey, Papa. Papa!”
The father slowly turned his head and opened his eyes to see his son. He smiled as he appreciated his own resemblance in him.
“Papa, mama sent these to you. Open your mouth so I can feed you.”
As the son stretched his arm to reach his father’s mouth, the father shook his head in disapproval. Gathering the little energy he had left, he opened his mouth to speak with great effort.
“Son, listen carefully. I want you to tell your mama exactly what I’m telling you.”
Determined to communicate with his son, the father breathed deeply and exhaled slowly before he continued. “I’ll be goin’ to sleep early. I’m too tired and weak to continue up. She can stay up with you longer, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“But ain’t you gonna eat before you sleep?”
“No, son. You eat. You need it mo’ than I do. Don’t worry ‘bout me: I’ll grow no mo’, but you’ll grow into a bigger man than I ever was. Go on to your mama, now.”
The father rolled his head into a supine position, as if to stare at an imaginary sky in the dark wooden ceiling. He mumbled unintelligible words as his son eased his way back up the stairs. At his father’s command, the boy ate the mixed nuts as he walked back to his mother. The sun got closer to the horizon, giving the sky a reddish hue. As the son approached the mother, he finished the last of his nuts.
“Did he enjoy his food?”
“He didn’t wanna eat it.”
“What you mean ‘he didn’t wanna eat it’? That man hasn’t eaten a thing today! What you do with the food?”
“I ate it.”
“YOU ATE IT!?”
The mother attempted to grab him, but was pulled back by the heavy iron shackles around her ankles. Though limited, the mother’s gender offered her the privilege of moving about within five feet. If she were 20 years younger, though, she would’ve had the mobility afforded to the son.
The son lowered his head as he normally did when he was reprimanded. He kept his distance to avoid his mother’s wrath, but inched his way enough to explain himself.
“But he told me to eat it.”
“And what is he suppose to eat now!? Did you think of that before you stuffed yo’ face?”
“I dunno, but he told me he didn’t need it and that I needed it mo’.”
The mother let out a deep breath and directed her gaze at the setting sun. The sun’s submersion finally came, signaling dusk’s imminent arrival and the end of the day. The mother’s thoughts were in a distant place as the son spoke.
“Papa also told me to tell you that he’s gonna sleep early. He says he too tired and weak to continue up.”
The mother quickly returned her attention to the child, as if he had prophesied the end of the world.
“What? He told you this just now? Right now!?”
The son, clearly confused by his mother’s strange reactions, tried to explain the rest of his father’s message.
“But mama, don’t worry. He also said that we can stay up longer and that he’ll see us tomorrow.”
With haste, she commanded her son to return to his father and not let him sleep. They would soon arrive at their destination, and he should be awake. A father, she told her son, must be with his family. They all must arrive together—they’re bound by oaths that must not be broken. For generations, it has been their tradition to stress the collective family.
“Hurry down there before it’s completely dark. And son, be careful not to stay down there too long or the ghost men will get mad and whip you. Go on, now!”
As the son rushed off into the dark interior, the mother sat back down and started working on her shackles. With great pain, she tugged and pulled on the chain that held her in place. She tried biting, picking, and kicking the lock that kept her bound.
In the meanwhile, the son rushed through the darkening corridors. He, too, started to feel tired from walking up and down the stairs, but he was not deterred. The corridor was getting darker and more difficult to traverse. This time, the son wasn’t able to immediately find and recognize his father: all the men strewn across the floor looked like his old man. Accidentally, the child stepped on a few people who didn’t care to respond. When the boy finally reached his father, he gently called and tapped him. When the father didn’t respond, the son returned to his mother.
“Mama, he’s already sleepin’. We should leave him alone.”
The mother faced the sky and closed her eyes. Tears ran down her face as her son looked at her with concern.
“Mama, you okay? He said we can stay up.”
“Com’ ‘ere, son, and lay on my lap. Give mama a hug.”
The son buried his face in his mother’s arms and felt tears falling on his head. Embracing her son tighter than ever, the mother kissed his forehead. She rubbed his tender arms and spoke softly to him.
“Look at how Mama’s little baby has grown. Your arms will be as big and strong as ye’ Papa’s. Your tiny hands will tend the land and become one with it. Work, and work you will, with nothin’ to show but scars and disappointment. You’d be very useful to men who seek shortcuts and wealth. But yo’ mama won’t ‘llow this — not her baby.”
She lifted her son and faced his round, youthful face. He listened intently to what he understood was his mother’s pride in him.
“Son, you know I’ve always loved you, and your father loves you. I’d do whatever it takes to protect you and make sure I do what’s best for you, even when you think I punish you. You’ve done nothin’ wrong, child, and I’m sorry.”
Unwrapping her only garment, the mother stood up dressed in nothing but what she had when she entered the world. The son couldn’t understand her behavior.
“Mama, what happened to your foot? You bleedin’!”
“Son, you remember when we used to go from our village to the river to pick up water, and I’d strap you up to my back in this cloth while you slept? Hop on, my baby, you’re still small enough for yo’ mama’s back.”
“But you bleedin’! You’re hurt!”
“Oh c’mon. It’s not the first time we bleed. It’s not the first time we’re hurt. Now you remember what I told you ‘bout the sun, right? Well, we been followin’ the sun for a while, but tonight we’ll finally catch him. You wanna catch the sun?”
“Yeah! He just went in the water!”
“That’s my little, itty, bitty warrior! Let’s go catch him!”
With legs strengthened by years of toil, the mother propelled herself across the vessel in a flash. In the quiet evening, while everyone rested, no one heard or cared about the splash.