The old man leaned on the walker, making faster progress down the ramp than I expected. He flashed a wrinkled smile beneath blue eyes that twinkled with mischief. I met him at the base of the ramp, and he reached a hand for mine. His grip was deceptively strong.
“Is it really you?” I asked.
“Now, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course it’s me; who else would I be?” Releasing my hand, he turned away from the house. “Let’s walk, shall we?”
“Should you be out here like this?”
“Oh, posh; if I’m the person you came here to meet, then you should ask if I really belong in there.” He withdrew the letter I’d sent from his shirt pocket. “I used to get letters like this all the time, but not much anymore.”
“I must confess, I’m a bit surprised. I didn’t expect to see you in a cotton shirt and twill slacks.”
He laughed. “I’m over a hundred years old. You don’t want to see me in nothing but a loincloth now.”
We stopped at the trees. “I’m just happy you’re still alive to meet, sir. From the first time I read the books about you, you became the face of Africa to me. My dad said you were the face of Africa to his entire generation.”
“Funny, that, really, since I’m English.” He patted my hand. “Don’t put much stock in those stories, though. If I could have done even half of what they said, I’d never need this home or a nurse.”
“The stories captured our imagination; even Jane Goodall cited them as inspiration for her life’s work.”
He nodded. “I know, but I have a confession. It’s not me that caught so many people’s imaginations; it was this land. If the stories about me had taken place in the swamps of Louisiana, or the Canadian Rockies, or even the Amazon rainforest, they wouldn’t have made the same impact. Africa, though, still draws us in with possibilities to be explored.”
“You might have a point there.”
“Of course, I do; I’ve had a long time to think about these things, you know. Look around you; this land has been known since before Egypt was mentioned in Genesis, but say ‘Africa’ to the average chap, and he won’t think of modern cities and agriculture. He’ll think of jungles and the Serengeti. He’ll see Kilimanjaro and the Sahara. To most people, Africa is synonymous with wild and untamed.”
“You’re right; most people I know could name more wild features about Africa than countries here.”
“I can even tell you why you came here.”
“I thought it was to meet you.”
“You didn’t come here to meet an old man; you came here to meet yourself. You’re here because – like most people – you have a deep awareness that humanity has lost something, and you saw traces of that in the stories about me.”
“What have we lost?”
“We’ve lost our purpose. You see, God created man to reach between the physical and the spiritual. We are grounded to the Earth, with hands to reach towards Heaven. We are flesh like animals, and spirit like God.”
“We haven’t lost that.”
His gaze was penetrating. “Modern man has insulated himself from both sides. We have pavement and shoes isolating us from the Earth. We build roofs over our heads to shield us from the sky, and hide from Heaven behind our science. Our food arrives in plastic packages, and our salvation in pill bottles.” He touched a hand reverently to a tree trunk. “You saw me as the face of Africa not because I lived here, but because I lived Africa. I moved with the land and the trees and the animals, and reminded you of what man could be if freed of society’s expectations. When a man is that close to the Earth as God made it, that spark of the Holy in him becomes more obvious.”
“Mr. Clayton,” the nurse interrupted from behind us. “You know you’re not supposed to wander away like this.”
He winked at me. “They’re afraid I’ll die in the jungle.”
“Uh huh,” she said. “Then I’d have to explain to the Greystoke Estate what happened to you.”
He put his hand on my chest. “Stay here; stand barefoot and see if the spiritual becomes more obvious to you.” He turned back to the house, and added, “See, then, if you find your mirror holds the face of Africa.”
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