It was a strange disease, embodying the characteristics of severe flu. She was sick with it. She was seventy years old. Many years ago when she was a young woman she had a daughter, and the daughter had a son, and when her daughter died from complications resulting from birth, she was left with her grandson and she clutched on to him like how she did her purse when she went to town.
Mpho sat in his room listening to his grandmother’s incessant coughs. He was sixteen years old, an age the neighbours deemed to be too young to look after the elderly. It was a small room, enough only to fit his small bed, and the only thing that adorned it was a framed portrait of his grandmother that hung on a wall. It was a medium-sized portrait, revealing the head and the upper part of the body. She was young, spotless, beautiful, and smiling. Her brown-skinned round face covered much of the portrait. Her gaze seemed to be fixed on everything around the room, and it followed you from when you entered to the point when you left the room. It seemed to be a portrait taken and framed for that dwelling.
Every day neighbours visited to share laughter with her and to restore her hope. A prayer session was held after each visit and everyone would leave thereafter.
With each passing day, her condition worsened. She could not fend for herself anymore. It was decided that she would be taken to a nearby nursing facility that cared for the sick elderly.
A few days before his grandmother was taken away, Mpho felt powerless because he also had to leave his home to stay with a related family in a distant village. He could not stop contemplating his unfortunate departure. He felt dispossessed of the purpose of his life. His mind was restless and burdened by the sickness that came and stole his peace. His sleeping patterns were interrupted.
On the evening of the day before he was fetched he felt strange. He felt a spiritual heaviness within him that he couldn’t wither away. He went to bed feeling like he would never wake up. There was something in him that wished for that. He had no desire to depart. His body showed his unwillingness by its inability to carry his spirit.
That evening he packed everything that belonged to him, including his grandmother’s portrait, and went to sleep. The blankets felt heavy against his skin. His bed felt like a foreign territory. The mattress had somewhat hardened and had become cold, subjecting him to the torment a homeless man faces when he has to sleep on the floor of a public restroom. He struggled to summon sleep and to control his thoughts. He was angry and wished to kick or to punch something, preferably his grandmother’s sickness. His life had changed. This unfamiliarity made him powerless and he felt like a passenger to his troubled thoughts.
As the evening progressed, he managed to restrain his thoughts and slept.
The next day he found himself walking alone on a long dusty path that connected his village to the next village. The sun was visible in the sky like one big eye and it seemed to have focused all of its heat on him. He noticed at that moment that he was fully clothed as compared to when he went to sleep. He wore blue jeans with a white t-shirt and sandals.
Now and then speeding cars travelled the road, leaving him with dust and the sudden urge to hitchhike. He looked at each side of this path, and the solitary nature of his journey scared him as he measured his small frame against the big trees and the vast green landscape.
Later as he walked, a single cap van appeared and stopped beside him. Its windows were tinted with a shade of grey, concealing two figures whose gender or age he was unable to discern. The van waited for him to climb at its back but he didn’t. Few minutes passed and it left.
It became terrifyingly quiet as he walked. This silence tormented him. He fastened his pace and walked for a long time without stopping, hoping that the road would end soon. He became tired. There was tension in his feet that made them burn like he walked on fire. A feeling of dizziness came to him and forced him to sit by the side of the road. While sitting, a sensation of sleep came and overpowered him. He fell asleep.
When he woke up he was scared and confused. It was still sunny but the heat had subsided. When he stood up he noticed that he was far from home and at the center of two roads.
The road ahead of him was dark and scary. The tall leafless trees and the burned grass at the sides of the road resembled a torched forest. When he turned he saw that the road behind him was the opposite. The road was beautiful, a perfectly trimmed green pasture with lively trees that resonated with his village childhood.
Instinctively he followed the greener pastures. There was an allure about the road that he wished to discover. He journeyed deeper and stopped when he saw a board hanging from a tree. “WELCOME TO STEPPING STONE” was written on the board. He became motivated and excited to further his journey. He believed that he was not alone and this assuaged his fears.
As he walked he saw that a mountainous rock that stood like an edifice lay ahead of the road. He increased his pace and walked until he reached it. Standing next to the rock he noticed that this is where the road ended. There were also strange continuous sounds that came from inside the rock that sounded like a language he had never heard before. He looked everywhere and noticed that he was still alone.
“Hello!” he called. The sounds ceased after his call and the rock started to tremble like it detected his presence or as a response to his call. The ground shook and he retreated. Standing from a distance he saw the front side of the rock open. Inside the round opening was only darkness. He was so scared that he felt his skin retract, like all the blood in his body had suddenly left it.
After some time a brown-skinned woman appeared from inside the rock. She was petite and she wore a long blue dress. She was a woman of simple beauty. Her hair was short and she had no accessories.
Mpho stood from a distance watching her. His fearful heart was beating aggressively against his small chest. The woman was walking towards him while he contemplated running. When she reached him she stopped and looked at him for a while like he was a treasure stolen from her long ago. He watched her closely and saw that she resembled a younger version of his grandmother.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your mother,” She said.
He fell silent at her words. Even though he had never met this woman before, he believed her. Something vibrated inside him. It was fate. He always believed that a day would come where he would meet his mother. He embraced her and she embraced him. At that moment he cried uncontrollably and felt the release of his pain.
“Do you know why you are here?” she asked him.
“No,” he said.
“You are here because you are in pain.”
“I don’t understand. What is this place?” he asked.
“This place is called stepping stone and it is a pathway to human growth.”
He fell silent again. Words had escaped him. He was confused. His mother saw his silence as incomprehension.
“Stepping stone is what people use to achieve growth, to overcome their pain, and to achieve other aspects of their life,” she explained.
“Does this mean I will stay here with you instead of my relatives?” he asked, hoping that he would not have to stay with his relatives.
“No,” she said. This answer shattered him and she could see it. “I understand that you would rather stay here but there are consequences to you choosing the path to stepping stone. Stepping stone is not merely what you will use to heal your pain and to reach another place in your life. Life in this place will influence the kind of person you become. The best thing for you is to follow the other path.”
“But the other path scares me!” he cried.
“I know it does but I don’t wish for you to become a part of the many voices of the people who live here. This place has fooled many people. Some have enjoyed living here long enough that they have forgotten their path and they have accepted stepping stone as their final destination. And then there those who are frustrated by life in stepping stone only because they do not possess the patience, direction, and discipline required for their destination. It is only a few of them who have not forgotten their path, and are still in the process of leaving stepping stone to reach their destination.”
“But I love this place and I don’t want to lose you!” he pleaded. He felt rejected.
“You will not lose me. And you will not lose your grandmother. We will always be with you. But you must take the path that was in front of you. It is specific to your process of healing. It is the path to your fears.”
It was difficult for Mpho to accept what his mother was telling him, but after she had coaxed him for a long time, he yielded. She held his hand and they walked, leaving stepping stone and walking to the path of fears.
They walked in silence. There were many things Mpho wished to say, like expressing the profound joy of meeting his mother, but he could not speak. Words had escaped him and the pain of leaving her behind overwhelmed him. When they reached the end of stepping stone, which was also where the path of fears began, Mpho felt his mother release his hand.
“We will meet again soon. I love you,” She said. And then she disappeared, as did stepping stone. Behind him, he only saw a dark wall, a dead end. He was presented with a road that he loathed.
The path of fear was not only visually frightening- the air around it heightened his fear. This invisible force owned him as he walked the path. He knew at that point that he needed to believe he was doing the right thing and that he should not despair.
When he walked he started hearing sounds, but these sounds were lucid as compared to the voices in stepping stone. It was the sound of people humming to a melancholic tune. He followed the source of the humming, seeking to uncover the mystery. He covered a long distance but the road seemed infinite. He became fatigued in such a way that he had never been before and he knelt in the middle of the road and cried out loud. He had despaired until he saw two people rushing to his rescue. It was a man and a woman. They were both tall and they wore black attire like they were coming from a funeral.
When they reached him he tried standing up but he struggled against the unbearable fatigue. The man gave him a jug of water which he took and drank from unceasingly until the water finished. He analyzed their faces and saw that they were old but he had never seen them before. A profound sadness was visible in their eyes.
The woman gave him a sealed plastic. When he opened it he saw new clothes. It was black formal trousers, black shoes, and a black shirt. Without speaking or thanking them, he removed his blue jeans and white shirt and wore the new clothes. The man took the old clothes and set them on fire using a match. The clothes caught fire instantly. Mpho watched as his old clothes burned, becoming black like the forest.
After the fire, the man and the woman started walking. Mpho followed them. The humming intensified as they walked and sounded nearer than before. He realized that they were leading him to the source of the humming. He could feel it in his blood and on his skin. His entire body shivered and his heart jumped in fear.
When they reached the source of the humming they all stopped walking. There they found ten people gathered around an adult-sized brown coffin that had not yet descended. All ten of them were wearing black clothes. Their humming did not cease even when Mpho arrived. A profound sadness was visible on all their faces. Mpho moved closer to the coffin and saw that his grandmother’s portrait was attached to a stand next to the coffin. He turned to look at the mourners, but their faces were fixed on the coffin, as were the faces of the man and woman who had brought him there. He sought answers but none of them offered him any. In the end, he decided to join the mourners and hummed along with them.
Few minutes passed, and the coffin began going down the hole slowly, as slow and almost as long as the woman concealed in it had lived her life. As the coffin descended, Mpho felt physical pain which he could not control. He felt like the insides of his body were violently tearing themselves. He was like a helpless creature going through a painful process of metamorphosis. For a moment, he believed that his heart had stopped beating and that he was the one dying. He rolled on the ground and screamed but the mourners did not help him.
When the coffin reached the ground, his pain stopped immediately. Two men who were part of the mourners took shovels and started pouring soil into the grave. As they did so, Mpho felt a huge weight on his body. It was a peculiar heaviness, the kind of heaviness that’s not meant to keep him down but to lift him high. It was euphoric. When he turned his head, he saw that he had suddenly grown big black wings. They were like the wings of a big powerful bird.
Mechanically, he felt lifted from the ground, with zero effort needed from him. It was like a force more powerful than him, a force of God carried him. His wings flapped once, twice, thrice, and the force elevated him. In the air, he felt free and weightless, like he was floating. When he looked below he saw that everything began disappearing magically. It was amazing for him to watch a path that had once been so influential to his process of healing turn from gloomy to greenery. The mourners, the graveyard, the portrait, and the scary path all disappeared.
When everything had turned green, lively, and as beautiful as stepping stone, the force brought him down. Then he saw his mother approaching. He became excited because she had returned as promised.
When she reached him she embraced him, like a mother proud of her son. It made sense to Mpho why his mother had insisted that he follow the path of fears. He understood that sometimes scary roads aren’t meant to destroy us but to revive us.
“You are the boy with the black wings. How do you feel?” she asked, smiling.
“I am happy,” He said, joyfully.
“This place will be your new home,” She told him.
“Are we still in stepping stone?” he asked.
“No, you have already passed stepping stone. You have processed your grandmother’s death, as you have processed my death through your path of fears.”
Mpho thought to himself and realized that for the longest time he never made peace with the fact his mother had died. But with the path of fears, after making peace with his grandmother’s death, he learned that death does not remove all human connection, it only alters the form of connecting.
“Will I still be able to see you after all this?” he asked.
“Yes, you will. We are always with you in every moment of your life,” she assured him.
As he listened to her words, he could feel that these were his last moments with her. But unlike before, he had reached an understanding of acceptance.
As they walked, they reached a small brick house located at the end of the street.
“Are you ready for your new home?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
“You are going to live in that house,” she said, pointing at the house.
“Who lives there?” he asked.
“It’s a man and a woman. You’ve met them before. Go and knock, they will open for you.”
He hugged his mother for the last time and walked to the house slowly, leaving her behind. When he reached the door he knocked, and they opened for him. That night he slept peacefully and comfortably.
When he woke up the next day his wings were gone like they were never there before. He was in a room, lying on a bed. His clothes were scattered on the floor and his grandmother’s portrait was hung on a wall. The door of his room was slightly open. Everything was normal that morning. Later, someone knocked at the door.
“Come in,” he said.
Two people entered. He recognized them immediately. It was the same man and woman who had rescued him when he walked the path of fears. The woman carried a tray of food, which she placed next to a table beside his bed. Their clothes and demeanor were different now. They were happy just like him.
“Welcome home, Mpho,” they said.
“Thank you,” he replied.