‘Better than any Son’ by Rob Nisbet

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‘Better than any Son’ by Rob Nisbet

    It was six o’clock in the morning and still bitterly cold. The sun wouldn’t rise over the distant horizon for another couple of hours and the clear black sky glittered with the light from those other stars, so incredibly distant that they might as well be made of ice.

Patience gazed up at the sky. Its vast emptiness seemed to suck the heat out of her, but it held her transfixed. This was one of the wonders of Botswana. She’d travelled far from the bustle of Gaberone; there was no light pollution here, just the speckled stripe of the Milky Way slicing through the heavens above the Kalahari.
Patience shivered and turned back to her tent; she needed to reach her goal before the midday heat made any progress unbearable. Though she was alone, she could hear her father’s voice, ever cautious and protective. “Always check under the flaps and the ground sheet. You never know what may have crept there overnight.” Patience smiled at the memory. “Yes, Dad,” she said to the empty desert as she carefully checked for snakes and scorpions that could crawl into the smallest of spaces. The tent was clear. She rolled it into her rucksack and took a deep gulp of cold water from one of several reassuringly heavy flasks. She picked up the only non-essential item she had with her, a terracotta jar. She reflected that, in a country where even the currency was named after water, this jar contained something far more precious to her than the vital flasks of liquid she carried. She tucked the jar into the crook of her left arm as if cradling a baby and set off northwards.
To her right the sky had started to brighten. She nodded to the ice-stars overhead – melted from view by the rising sun. She’d see them again in the evening, creeping over that same eastern horizon when the sun and its heat faded from the sky.
The first time Patience had made this journey she had been almost seven. She was an only child and had accompanied her father, in the absence of a son, on this trail of family tradition. That’s when she’d first learnt the safety rules of surviving away from town. In the evening she would collect the baked-dry sticks needed for the cooking fire. She always collected more than the boys – they just weren’t used to having to fend for themselves – and more than once her keen eyes had prevented one of the sons from grabbing hold of a snake hiding in the dead branches.
“Better than any son.” That’s what her father had said to the other men, in the evenings as they sat around the glowing fire. Its heat warmed them as the cold night swept like a tide over the bleak landscape, and the flames kept back any creatures that might otherwise have crept too close. Of course, the other men had disagreed, especially those with sons of their own. Patience had felt so proud, both of herself and of her father. He had gone against all prejudice and tradition to bring his daughter along, and then to speak-out in her favour in front of his own elders… But then, this whole tradition was itself a process of change; the old were replaced by the young. Old ideas, unless they still held some worth or relevance died and were forgotten. New concepts came into being with fresh generations – only certain values remained eternal.
Patience smiled as she thought of her father’s pedantic, caution. He seemed slow in today’s ever quickening world. It was hard now to imagine that in his day he had been the rebel, pushing against the prejudices of his elders – testing their limits, getting his seven-year-old daughter accepted even in this most male of ceremonies. It was a demonstration of his love for his family – and that was eternal, like the stars. The seven-year-old Patience had watched from the background as the ceremony unfolded. Her grandfather’s ashes had been poured onto the Kalahari with great solemnity ringed by his sons and grandsons – and one granddaughter.
Now it was her father’s turn. Patience clutched the terracotta jar to herself and continued to walk, amazed that in this almost featureless environment she could remember the way. Finally, she reached the correct spot. Why this particular area had been selected Patience didn’t know, and it was too late now to ask her father. Another tradition, no doubt based on the male ego and having to trek deep into the wilderness. But it was what her father would have wanted, and that was all the justification Patience needed.

  She had made good progress; there were still a couple of hours till midday. She took a long drink from one of her flasks, thankfully shrugging off the backpack and tent that she would need again on her way home. Patience unstoppered the terracotta jar. She tried to be serious, but memories of her father always made her smile. She missed him of course, but a life is to be celebrated! How else could she move on, push back at the old traditions. What would her own grandfather have thought of her – a daughter, alone in this most male of places, and with so important a mission?

   The sun poured down on the desert, bleaching away the old traditions, glowing over the lone figure of Patience who twirled with the jar, dancing its contents into the Kalahari, a smile on her lips and a tear in her eye.

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