The Lost Son

The Lost Son

Art by Kaelin Yumi Hall-Gardner Translated by Shugri Salh

In the vast open desert of Somalia, a nomadic family was on the move, searching for water and fresh grazing land for their goats and sheep. The journey to the new place was hard and long, and the family looked forward to settling in their new home. A male camel, led by the father, moved steadily across the red earth. He carried all the family’s belongings, including their dismantled hut. Two little boys, who were too young to walk, sat atop the camel in a small space created in the center of the belongings. Following the camel, the large herd of goats and sheep blanketed the land. Towards the back of the herd, a young mother ushered the animals with a long stick. She was the fourth and youngest wife of her husband, and had just given birth a few nights ago. With her newborn strapped to her chest, she walked with strain. Her oldest son, a boy of eight whom she adored and loved, herded from the other side. The son and his mother kept a vigilant eye on their livestock, protecting them from cunning foxes and mocking hyenas.

After days of travel, the family arrived at the new grazing land. The father, who was an older man, knew this area well but his youngest wife and her children had never been there before. Since this was unfamiliar terrain, the young mother was worried that her son would get lost, or worse, be eaten by wild animals. With no GPS or maps, nomads had their own system of getting the lay of the land. They would climb to the top of the tallest tree and take note of all the surrounding landmarks. Oddly shaped trees, distinctive termite mounds, valleys, hills or rocky areas were all used to mark the land. Although the mother encouraged her son to climb trees and termite mounds to get to know the area, she was nervous about him taking the animals out to graze by himself. She was an extremely attentive mother, and when they lived in their old place, she would check on her son when he herded the animals alone. She would bring him water, fruit, or milk and give him a little break from herding in the middle of the day. On the contrary, the father had three other wives and many more children. He had an air about him that said I could spare one or two of my children. One thing was clear, the mother did not want her son to herd the animals alone on his first day. She wished to accompany him, but she could not since she had just given birth recently.

“Do you mind herding the animals today?” she asked her husband, a bit apprehensive. It was always expected for the woman to shoulder many of the household responsibilities. She had been married to this man since she was fifteen, and knew that the fact she had given birth a few nights ago did not make a difference to her husband. He shifted his stance, uncomfortable with the request.

“Listen, woman. I am heading to the nearest village for news and socializing. All I can do is to get the boy going in the right direction. I know an old lady who lives in this area. I will ask her to keep an eye on him and once she agrees, I will be on my way.” In the nomadic lands, “living in the area” meant she was still many miles away.

“Oh, please, don't let my son get lost. Don't let him disappear.” she pleaded, as she settled her newborn in her arms.

“I will not let him get lost. I will ask the lady to keep an eye on him. Don’t worry,” he repeated.

The young mother stood in front of her hut and watched her husband and son disappear into the horizon, their animals stretched in front of them. The young mother had a foreboding feeling. She knew in her heart something bad was going to happen to her oldest son. But she had no choice but to take what little help her husband offered. With worry wrapped around her, she returned to care for her other children.

They walked for miles and miles and the father pointed out distinctive landmarks to his son so he could find his way home. Finally, they came upon the hut where the old woman lived with her family, including her older sons who looked after the camels. It turned out that she had already left for the morning, but her family pointed them to where she herded the animals.

The father and his son followed the trails left by the lady. By midday, they saw her sitting on a rock, brushing her teeth with a stick.

“Make sure our animals do not get mixed up with hers,” the father called to his son as he went to talk to the old woman.

“My son is new to this land,” the father said after exchanging greetings with the old woman. “Could you keep an eye on him today? And later, when you guide him back, stay with him until he starts to recognize the landmarks I pointed out on our way to you.”

“Okay,” the old woman said, and continued with her brushing and taking thorns out of her feet. The father left for the village well to socialize and gather the news.

The lady’s animals were more settled and they grazed contentedly, since this land was familiar to them, but the young boy’s animals were uneasy in the new surroundings. They kept straying from the boy, and he kept coaxing them back near the old lady, making sure to not mix them with her livestock. But his stubborn goats and sheep were determined to move on. In the meantime, the old woman, knowing her animals would not leave her, decided to take a nap.

The boy continued to struggle settling the herd down, and soon he found himself far away from the lady. He looked around but he couldn’t see which direction she was. The lady and the boy had been grazing their animals in a wide valley with abundant grass and bushes for the goats and sheep. In the peak of the rainy season, this valley would have a lot of water running through it. Now the biggest rains had passed and it was the perfect pasture. Since it was a valley, it was harder to use the path of the sun to orient himself. The boy was starting to panic and was still running after straying animals, so he did not think to climb a tree to see the land better. Growing more confused, he brought the animals back to where he thought the lady was. But, in his desperate attempt to find her and her animals, he was just moving in a circle.

After some time, it became clear that he was not going to find the old woman. He was disoriented, tired and hungry, and his animals continued to stray. It was now late afternoon and his shadow was growing longer. In his gut, he knew it was time to head home.

But where was home?

He did not know which wild animals lived in this new valley. He moved his herd with urgency and purpose, in the direction he thought was home. In reality, he was heading in the opposite direction. After some time had passed, he came upon a shaag, a road that was used by cars when traveling in the desert. Nomads know these roads because they are wide and usually have tire markings. Desperate for any signs or people to ask for directions, he followed the wide road. He kept following and following until the sun went home and a half-full moon appeared on the horizon. Thinking he was still on the way home, he pressured his animals to move fast. Lonely and in the middle of nowhere, he had no choice but to be brave. But no matter how far he traveled, he did not see the familiar markings his father had pointed out. The boy began to fear for his livestock and himself.

Back home, father finally returned from socializing and found his young wife stiff with worry.

“Where is my son and our animals?” asked the mother, the minute she saw her husband.

“I left him with the lady and told her to keep an eye on him. Did she not help him? Did he not come home?” the father asked in surprise.

The mother started wailing, “Oh my god, I am doomed! Oh my god, I am done! Oh my god, I am doomed!” over and over.

Just as she feared, her son was lost.

She put her newborn on her back and set out on foot, relying only on the light of the moon. She had to find her son.

“Hey lady, stay. Hey lady, stay,” her no-good husband kept repeating.

She did not care to listen to him anymore. She went straight to the lady who was supposed to keep an eye on her son. “Where is my son?” she demanded.

“What do you mean?”, the old woman asked. “Didn’t he come home with his animals?”

“No, he didn’t return! You were supposed to guide him back!” the young mother snapped in irritation.

“I did my duty,” the old woman scoffed. “It is not my fault that he wandered off while I was sleeping.”

The young mother marched out of the old woman’s hut, at a loss for words. She was torn between finding her lost son and protecting her other children. She did not trust her husband to keep them safe, and decided to return home.

“I knew this would happen!” she yelled at her husband. “You chose socializing over your family and now my son is lost or eaten by a wild animal! I hope you are happy!”

“I will look for him, you stay here,” her husband insisted, but she had no ears for his useless words. He was the reason her son was lost.

Men passing by heard the commotion of the husband and wife in distress and offered to help the father search. They took flashlights, sticks, and a few weapons and scattered into the desert, calling and tracking the boy. That whole night men searched for the boy, but there was no trace of him. By this time, the boy had traveled many miles in the opposite direction.

It was now midnight, and as the boy faced the bright half-moon that stood above him, he knew he was lost. The boy could see around him as clear as midday light. It was one of the clearest nights he had ever seen. Dust swirled around him as his animals moved in a fast-paced motion. Despite the danger that existed, he didn’t see or hear the call of any wild animals. In that sense he was grateful, because his animals had no enclosure or fire to protect them from predators.

After a few more hours, his herd slowed down and a few goats started to call out in frustration. The herd had been on the move since morning. Soon exhaustion overtook them and all his animals stood in front of him and refused to move. The boy looked around to see if the herd was sensing any danger, but he saw nothing. His first few goats sat down and within a few minutes, they all sat down in the middle of the road. The goats and sheep knew their rhythm. After a long day of traveling, they knew something was not right. They should have been milked, reunited with their babies, and settled in safe enclosures. With no water or food, and after being in the sun the whole day day and half of the night, they succumbed to sleep.

Under the luminous glow of the half-moon, the young boy curled up in the middle of his animals and slept. The night marched ahead, the moon continued to shine and finally a pinkish hue covered the horizon. The sun was on its way. Having rested, the goats and sheep got up and started to graze. They moved away from the road, following the green grass. Finally the sun fully emerged from its hole. The light and warmth of the morning sun shook the boy from his deep sleep. He looked around, but he was greeted with the eerie silence of vast open land. He looked as far as his eye could see in every direction and he could not glimpse any sign of his herd.

The boy had now been away for more than twenty four hours. He had no food, no more water, and worst of all, he had lost his herd. The boy continued to follow the road ahead, hoping to find his goats and sheep. His heart leapt when he spied a couple of men walking toward him, carrying supplies. They had journeyed to a village and were on their way back to their nomadic family, having gotten a ride part of the way.

“Hey," one said to the other, noticing the boy's sunken eyes. “Look at that little boy. Is he all alone? He looks tired and hungry. He must be lost”

“Hey boy, what is your father's full name and lineage and where are you coming from?” one of the men asked as they drew nearer.

The boy answered, reciting his father’s full name and lineage, just as he had been taught. He named the place his family had moved to a few nights ago.

The men looked at each other with confusion, for they knew he had traveled far. They talked over how best to help him. They were each carrying heavy loads, and did not think they could deliver the boy all the way to his home. They decided the best thing to do was to leave the boy with a family they knew who lived nearby, hoping the boy’s family would track him that far. Before starting the journey, they gave the boy milk and water. He drank gratefully and went with the men. When they reached the hut, they talked to the lady of the house and told her to keep the boy until his family came for him. The boy gave them thanks as they left to complete their own journey.

Meanwhile, a nomadic family who was herding their own animals found the boy’s herd and, recognizing the family’s mark, returned them. When their goats and sheep were brought home without the boy, the young mother fell into deeper despair, convinced her son was eaten by wild animals. As the search for the boy continued throughout the day and into a second night, her hope that he would be found alive vanished.

The boy remained with the family that took him in, and on the second night, a lone traveler sought shelter with them as well. As is custom to nomads, news of the land was exchanged, and soon the man shared the news of the lost boy. The lady of the house got excited and revealed the boy was with her.

“What is your father’s full name and your tribe?” the traveler asked, wanting to make sure it was the same boy. When the boy replied, the man turned to the lady and said, “Yes, this is the boy they are searching for!”

At dawn, the boy and the traveler set off, carrying water and dried meat for their journey. The traveler knew of a family that lived partway to the boy’s home, and they hoped to make it there before dark. On the third day, they started off early again. Suddenly, the boy saw his family’s huts in the distance and began to run, calling his mother’s name. She looked up from where she was milking a goat and let out a wail of great joy. She could not believe she was seeing her treasured son, alive and running toward her. His mother began to run too, and when they met, she engulfed him in a huge hug. The boy inhaled deeply, drawing in his mother’s familiar scent. Tears of joy trickled down both of their faces.

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1 comment

I liked how you described everything in the nomadic set up and their way of life.
As I read the story,I felt sad when the poor boy lost his way and later all his herds.
The story was captivating and full of imagery. I liked every bit of it!


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