~ Not Yet ~

I reached the edge of the trees without notice and stood underneath the last of them, a giant acacia with branches twisting into the hot clear sky. Its spreading shade sheltered me as if guarding me from sight. For a time I could not decide whether to go on. I had walked long to get here, always on my own, and only the memory of my brave friend for company. "Do you see, Maximus?" I murmured softly. "This is my home. See how the setting sun burns red the earth of my land and makes the grasses golden? Hear the water laughing as it flows. This is my heaven."

My youngest daughter was at the river. She had grown. When I was taken, she was still but a child at her mother's side...but no longer. I had missed much. Gone were the rounded cheeks and bright, guileless eyes I remembered of her youth. She had gained the grace and wisdom of age, and now I replaced the girlish image that had been so long in my mind with the woman before me. Her hair was bound in a glossy black coil at the back of her head. She bent to the water with a pot, scooping it through the clear shallows. Slender ebony arms adorned with wristbands of colored leather swept along the river's surface. Her hands were like her mother's, long-fingered and elegant. When the pot was full, she stood erect. Her carriage was proud. My people had lived here for many thousand of the white man's years, and they would be here when the slave hunters had gone back to their own lands with the spoils of my country.

She was gazing into the acacia trees, unafraid. Had she heard me approach? I shouldered my pack and stepped out into the lowering sun.

For a moment she stood motionless as a gazelle scenting lions. When she saw me, her eyes widened. "Father?" she whispered.

The word brought tears to my eyes. I started forward again.

The water pot dropped from her hands and crashed against the river stones, shattering into pieces. She splashed into the river, heedless of the wet dragging heavily at her clothing. She raised her arms, stretching them toward me as she had done so often as a child. "Father!" she cried, the sound shot through with joy like a host of rainbows.

My tears were in earnest now. I threw my pack down and stumbled into the water toward her.

Her cry had brought others out of their huts. My wife, my beautiful, breathtaking wife, was among them. When she saw me, she gave a shout and came running hard, her long hair slipping from its bindings and flying loose behind her. "Juba! Oh, my Juba!" she wept, rushing into the river in a wild spray of water.

The three of us came together in the middle of the river, a tangle of arms and kisses and tears. Such joy as this I had never known. If all the rest of my days I do nothing but sit idly before a fire listing to the younger warriors speak of their brave deeds, I shall die a happy man.

The river laughed around us as if it, too, celebrated my return. There would be dancing and feasting tonight, I thought, holding my family tight to me. I will have a great many stories to tell.

- End