Rumpus Exclusive: “In the Realm of Vanished Beasts”

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Ellen and I have ventured down into the lowlands. We descend the Maloti mountain range in a 4WD, bypass meandering cattle, bisect clots of unruly goats, and eventually land in Maseru. We are in a bar there when we hear a tantalizing archeological rumor: dinosaur tracks, a man tells us, in the nearby town of Roma. The real deal, he says, the eons-old tracks of the Terrible Lizards, petrified proof that our little rock has taken a few spins through the solar system.

Only thirty minutes away, we think, dinosaur tracks. When else would we have the chance?

Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say there really are dinosaur tracks within a heartbeat’s drive of a nation’s capital city. Now imagine that the nation is the United States and the city is Washington, DC. There are neon-green billboards along every highway within a five-hour drive, tourist packages for families on vacation, local celebrity endorsements, posters and coffee mugs and T-shirts that read “I Saw the Dino Trax & All I Got…”—a maze of stagnant lines and melting ice cream and teenage staff in candy-colored polos.

Back in Lesotho, the most concrete piece of information we could gather was that the dinosaur tracks were maybe somewhere on the western side of town.

 

The town of Roma is quiet. One could conceivably drive through Roma and not notice that one had done so. The sleepy main road runs past Lesotho’s lone university and some deserted restaurants. The notable attractions along this main drag include an abandoned tennis court—weed-choked, cracked, netless—and a relatively new basketball court, where both hoops are swiveled away from the field of play like former lovers unable to bear eye contact. Gorgeous sandstone cliffs dominate one end of town, pale white rock that glows beneath patches of emerald scruff. The main road dips through a little canyon here and the sandstone turns luminescent in the late afternoon, the homebound sun breathing mysterious life into the cliffs. And then you are out of Roma again.

We drive aimlessly through town, searching for any sign of the dinosaur tracks, but there is not a billboard, poster, brochure. We ponder the single cryptic datum we have collected: something about the western side of town. But here we are at an impasse, as there is no western side of town. There is only a main road running generally north-south, with the university on the east side of the road and a tiny residential neighborhood on the west side—a neighborhood that almost immediately abuts onto a mountain. This neighborhood does not seem like a place to find dinosaur tracks. It seems more like a place that fell asleep on the couch watching Jeopardy!

Lacking other options, we proceed into the neighborhood, through narrow lanes of corrugated metal shacks and two-room cinderblock houses. We are on an unpaved dirt track. Now we are possibly driving through a backyard. Finally—the first sign of life—we see a young girl behind her house playing with a dog. The dog is trying again and again to leap up and lick the girl’s face, while she dodges away laughing. This girl is about thirteen, chubby, barefoot, and wearing a dirty white tank top. Her hair springs out from her scalp as if she has been mildly electrocuted. She has a peach-colored scar across her forehead and bright eyes.

“Do you know about the dinosaur footprints?” I call out to her in English, after greeting her in Sesotho. I wonder if she understands me and I briefly consider trying to pantomime a dinosaur, but this seems offensive to everyone involved.

The girl nods yes.

“Can you tell us how to get there?”

Now she comes up to the car. She starts speaking quickly, and in Sesotho, directing us with her hands, motioning left, then right, then right, then left, then up into the sky. She sees us struggling to keep up, then stops and says in English: “I will take you.” Without further discussion, she hops into the backseat. I scan for some parental figure but the area is deserted, emptied out.

We briefly consider the ethics and safety of letting this girl join our half-baked sojourn, but I can so clearly remember from my own childhood that desperation for something, anything, to happen. My memories are of a boring (read: idyllic) Chicago youth, trying to animate our pacific neighborhood, prowling leafy back alleyways with my three siblings as we partook in light arson, exploding old aerosol cans to underwhelming result. We dreamed wild fantasies rambling through those secret precincts of childhood—what really was going on in that creepy wig shop, we would ask each other, cranking ourselves into a frenzy. No one had ever seen a soul enter or leave the place, a grungy single-story building whose entire façade was a wood-paneled blank, a level of secrecy that clearly marked it as a house of murder. (It had not occurred to us then that elderly gentlemen prefer privacy while trying on hairpieces.) Once, my younger sister Mary, in a feat of incredible courage, opened the door to the wig shop, peered into the gloom, and then fled. Inside she had seen an old man asleep on a ratty couch, wearing only his old man boxers and his old man undershirt, his skin shining pinkly through the worn cotton, more terrifying than anything we could have conjured.

It must present an impossibly enticing opportunity, then, to play host to strange makhooa visitors on a deathly still Sunday afternoon. The girl in our backseat is smiling and bobbing her head to some internal music, awaiting our decision. Ellen shrugs. Off we go.

Our tiny directrix steers us through the neighborhood, our path twisting and turning and doubling back on itself. There are no gridded neighborhoods in Lesotho, where everything must eventually bow to the contours of the earth. We curl through a residential labyrinth, then emerge, then slowly begin to ascend the smallish mountain that forms the immediate backdrop of the neighborhood.

Now we are climbing higher, the truck’s engine churning. The housing here is no longer rectangular but circular, like the thatch-roofed rondavels we know in Mokhotlong. Our surroundings quickly turn deep country, with any lingering ninety-degree angles windblown into curves. A donkey roaming the mountainside brays at us. There is no longer anything resembling a road.

As we continue up the mountain, we begin to develop a small entourage. Children follow our truck, Pied Piper-style, as we aim skyward. They have emerged from fields of maize, from behind boulders. We are moving so slowly across the terrain that this cadre of shoeless children can jog beside us, behind us, in front of us—we look like a miniaturized version of a presidential motorcade, the children ringing our truck like a complement of very cheerful Secret Service agents. Two boys are running beside my window, laughing and calling out “Ke kopa lifti! Ke kopa lifti!” and as I lean out to say “Sorry, no lift,” Ellen slows to cross a gap in the non-road. One of the boys grabs hold of my hand, has now suddenly jumped onto the runner of the moving vehicle—“No,” I’m telling him, “you’ve got to get down!”—and before I can do anything, before I can process what is happening, the boy has climbed in through the open window and plopped himself onto my lap. The second boy nimbly follows suit and suddenly I have two village boys, ages seven and nine, piled on top of me, laughing wildly at their boldness.

Ellen stops the truck. There is really no other option.

Now the floodgates open: the throng sends up a cheer and the remaining children clamber into the car. They are sitting on top of each other, stacked in a mad jumble of scrawny limbs. I do a quick head count. In addition to Ellen, myself, and our original guide, eleven more kids have packed our truck—ranging between four and twelve years old—putting a total of fourteen passengers in the 4WD, a whole clown car’s worth of child endangerment.

Watching all of this from the doorway of her rondavel is an old nkhono. She shakes her head, coughs out a rickety laugh, and waves us on. Ellen sets us into motion again and puts some famo on the radio, the accordion and bass rattling the speakers, and with this we have completed our transformation into a fully operational Basotho taxi. We continue along in a state of hilario-chaos, the kids stomping their feet and singing along to Phoka, belting the lyrics with atonal gusto, laughing and toasting the two boys who breached the siege wall.

We creep up the mountain, ten minutes farther, and then our guide tells us to stop.

“We are here,” she says.

We pile out of the car, all fourteen of us. By now, even more children have seen our curious progress and have come to join us, upwards of thirty kids crowding around as our guide takes us on foot for the last stretch. The wind is whipping as we trek across a flat span of ancient rock.

“There,” our guide says, and points to the ground.

I look. There is nothing.

I squint and look around, trying to be polite. “Where?” I ask.

“There,” she says again, and points emphatically to a spot a few inches in front of me.

There are vague indentations in the rock, filled with rainwater. Shallow wells eroded into the stone by centuries of rain and wind.

I start laughing. If those are dinosaur tracks, then I’ve seen thousands of dinosaur tracks since I’ve been in Lesotho. They are depressions in the rock, they are nothing at all.

“And there,” she says. “And there,” pointing all around us.

I start examining some of the other pools of water. Ellen is hunched over too. And now that I look closely—

Well.

I stand up to get perspective, trying to take in these indentations. Each one has three angular toes, like the tines of a fork were pressed into the soft dough of the earth millennia ago. Suddenly I see one that I know is the real thing, feel an immediate clench in my gut. It is instantly recognizable, iconic, the tread of some long-dead proto-lizard, like an illustration torn from The Encyclopedia for Precocious Children.

 

In the middle distance, the pale sandstone cliffs are pulsing as the sun slips toward the horizon. Ellen is doing cartwheels for the kids and I am taking pictures, trying to capture the impossible vista. We run our hands over the footprints of strange vanished beasts, reclaim them briefly from the realm of myth. There are no signs or velvet ropes up here on the outcropping. Our experience has not been curated; we make of it what we want. As the light softens, I sit on the rock and press my hand into one of the tracks, trying to make it fit. It is hard not to consider one’s place on the timeline.

Soon we’ll head back down and return our guide to her sleepy neighborhood. We’ll thank her for her expertise and press maloti into her hands, money she hasn’t asked for, and she’ll rub the peach scar on her forehead, pocket the coins, and run to her yard with tongue tucked happily between teeth. Her dog will bound toward her in eager greeting.

But we don’t have to leave this place just yet. We can sit here a while longer, bathing in the cool air and studying dinosaur tracks. We can attempt to suss meaning, or not. The tides of entire species have come in and then washed to sea since these treads were trod, whole civilizations built up from the clay only to melt away in rain. I scan the village’s worth of children clambering around the rocks with us. What have any of us learned about durability and its opposite during our transit?

But that lavish sunset is lighting the world on fire, so we scramble on undaunted, hoping to leave our incomprehensible tracks for whatever beasts come after. We’ll leave them hypothesizing about our glorious unimaginable plumage, guessing all our colors wrong.

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Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.

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Excerpted from Everything Lost Is Found Again by Will McGrath. Copyright © 2018 by Will McGrath. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Dzanc Books.


Will McGrath has worked as a reporter, homeless shelter caseworker, public radio producer, UPS truck loader, Burger King mayo-applicator, ghostwriter, and ghosteditor, in slightly different order. He spent twenty months living in the southern African kingdom of Lesotho, and has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Foreign Affairs, Guernica, and Roads & Kingdoms, among other magazines. His writing has won nonfiction awards including the 2014 Felice Buckvar Prize and has been translated into Chinese, Hungarian, and Japanese. More from this author →