Earthly Branches, Heavenly Stems

Althea is a global nomad, an American born in an African village, the daughter of a relief worker.  She is fourteen when she digs in her heels and refuses to leave her true community and return to her mother’s idea of civilization: the United States.  But when Althea finds herself caught up in the horrific crossfire of an African civil war, evacuation is inevitable.  She flies away unscathed, deserting people who are likely to die in the only place she has ever called home.  Thus she begins her journey to earn a place in the world.  As she grows, she samples homelessness in Nevada, loneliness in Portugal, a new identity in South Africa, and loss in South Asia.  Finally, in an isolated hill country town in Pakistan, she discovers what it means to belong to the earth, and pays the price of membership in the human race.


My life passes before me like Genesis, seven long days and then it’s over.  I can see it all at once, every moment simultaneous with every other.  Or I can choose to view it as a narrow bridge, one I walk with hesitant deliberation – a tightrope walker between towering cliffs — as each event leads to the next.

One thing I know: the darkness leads to the light, and what I sought I found.  Come, I’ll show you.

Day 1

Separating the Light from the Darkness;

I am born.

Take a walk down the hall.  It is long and narrow.  The grey-green walls dissolve near the floor into a cinnamon haze, the ubiquitous dust of our bloody laterite clay.   At the end of the hall, a door stands open, a crowd of people cluster.  They press against each other, taking turns to stare into the room without crossing the threshold.

What are they looking at?

Beyond the door, the space is small, undistinguished except that it is a private room.  That is an uncommon luxury in this isolated corner of West Africa, hardly touched by modern technology and contemporary medicine.  Here, too, the walls and sheets and thin cotton curtains speak of frequent washing in water that is not entirely clean – river water, rain water.  Water that has been used more than once by hands fissured by caustic soap.

You see that there is a woman asleep in the bed, a motionless hill of bedding turned away from the curious onlookers.  The viewers’ eyes rest beyond her, on the chipped metal frame of a hospital-issue crib.  The child within, no bigger than a good-sized cane rat, is awake and eager; her fists wave frantically, as she peeps and gurgles in turn.  Yet there is nothing so special about this infant, parked alongside her mother’s bed like dozens of newborns in room after room of the hospital.  Why are these people staring; what is there to see?

Turn around, then, and face the crowd.  Examine their eager faces, their thoughtful aspect, the quiet respectful murmur of idle curiosity, their rich, dark skin.

Ah.  Now do you see?

Here is the only white baby in the hospital.

And this is me.  Althea.

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