The hikes to find drinking water were getting longer every year, for the oil companies had turned the rivers of the Delta into dense, oily swamps. Many young people had begun suffering from diseases that not even the witch doctors could diagnose. Ingwa Mgbuto, however, retained his usual open, contagious smile, full of big, white teeth like an ivory palm tree.
In spite of his good disposition, Ingwa seemed destined for solitude. He had been orphaned at the age of five, and since then had been brought up by the youngest spouse of Agbalfune, which was the name of his father’s old friend. And he was left alone once again when Agbalfune had to emigrate to Umouko where, so they said, he found work on a sweet potato plantation. At age sixteen, Ingwa was taking part in the training sessions and operations of the guerrillas, and since he was sweating out the last throes of a fever, he was able to stay at a secret base camouflaged in the city market. He liked it there from the beginning, for though they didn’t even have a bathroom, they did have a computer connected to the internet. Ingwa spent his days in front of the screen, and ever since he found Google Earth, he started spending his nights there too. He thought it was incredible to be able to travel the world just by clicking on some keys. Effortlessly, he went up and down the mountain ranges of Morocco, passed through the galleries of the Great Wall of China, went up the branches of the Amazon, flew over the Sahara Desert, or had a bird’s eye view of ancient little streets in Peru. Ingwa knew those landscapes were images captured by satellites and, nevertheless, after spending hours before the screen, he came to fantasize that it was he himself who was orbiting the planet, as if spying on it in secret.
One day, Ingwa went down the Pacific coast to southern California, and turning toward a great valley, he advanced over the roofs of houses with swimming pools and trees crowned with thick foliage: it was then that he discovered the lake. Instantly he felt attracted to those crystalline waters surrounded by fertile hillsides and picturesque houses. The lake was called Silver Lake, and scarcely had he heard that name when his imagination was incited so much he thought he had discovered a mirage turned real. Ingwa couldn’t have imagined a more heavenly name: the silver lake in the golden state. He devoted several days to observing it. What had begun as a pastime turned into an obstinate ceremony. He would make the perspective whirl, get closer till the waves on the surface broke up into pixels, and he would pull away till the lake disappeared in the midst of a vast, mountainous territory, he would try different angles and distances, and each time he imagined it as the source of new and unpredictable magic powers.
Ingwa got over the fever, although he broke out in a virulent rash on his arms and legs. In any case, when he finally left the refuge, he had already made up his mind: regardless of the thousands of kilometers extending between Nigeria and California, he would get to the silver lake; and with no more preamble than the steps that led him to the outside of the market, he began his journey. He traveled across the city, unaware of the chaotic traffic, until the streets turned into clay paths and then into a broad, muddy plain. He advanced among the ruined shacks that announced the river, and going along the left bank he traversed on foot the long route to Ewokori. When he arrived, it was already night. The river was lit up by the torches of the oil rigs. The fire crackled among loudly belching fumes that impregnated the air with an acrid odor of methane. From an imprecise distance the dampness carried the beating of some drums. Ingwa observed the river, lit up by the reflections of the flames, and let himself be seduced by the sensual, iridescent streaks that slithered over the oily surface. On the shore, on a mound of clay he recognized the vestiges of an old altar. It was owu iyingi. Ingwa didn’t have a kola nut or some palm wine to offer it. He searched in his pockets, and the only thing he could find was a Coca-Cola cap he had kept, thinking it was good for a prize. He left the bottle cap on the altar, hoping that the goddess would appreciate the gesture in spite of everything and, in exchange, bless his incipient crossing.
Ingwa continued his trip. As he got deeper into the swamp, the brightness of the fires and the beating of the drums diminished. On the other hand, the darkness and the shrieking of the insects increased. At a remote twist of the arroyo, by balancing on some roots, he got on board a barge. They had loaded it clandestinely near a Shell rig. Ingwa was counting on the idea that the pirate ship, to which they would sell the crude, would take him to the United States. He put on a ski mask and fell asleep on the deck. When he woke up, it had already begun to grow light, and the curve of the Delta looked like a spot of vegetation on the horizon. It was just then that Ingwa felt that his journey had begun.
The ship was waiting for them a hundred kilometers east of Cabo Verde. It was a ship constructed in Hamburg but with a Portuguese flag and belonging to a company of Armenians. When Ingwa found out that, in fact, the ship was bound for Texas, he did the impossible to get hired on as a crewmember. He realized too late, however, that he would live through the worst days of his life on that ship. They beat him just for fun and sometimes out of boredom, and the only thing he had to drink was the dirty water with which they made him clean the deck. He spent his nights practically starving to death in the darkest corner of the cargo hold, scratching the rash that had become like an open wound. In the emptiness of that darkness, he thought of the ancestors he never had, the heroes he never knew, and the gods to whom he sang only out of habit but whom he suddenly found himself invoking among silent laments.
When the ship entered the port, Ingwa was alive and sufficiently lucid to escape before the Armenians started looking for him. He made his way as best he could among the cranes and containers toward an avenue that led into the city. He was in Texas City, and he spent a night recovering there next to a bum who offered him the leftovers from a plate of Chinese food. The next morning, he started his hike toward Houston, where he would take the train to Los Angeles. Barefoot, wounded, dirty, and with his clothing revealing the open pustules on his skin, Ingwa passed by completely unnoticed, nobody approached him either to help or chastise him. He passed through several stations that way—San Antonio, Del Rio, Alpine—until a guard, confusing him for a transient beggar, made him get off in El Paso. Ingwa just waited, got on the next train, and continued his journey. It was 5:30 in the afternoon when he arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles. He got out of the imposing building as if shaking off a burden and headed north, ready to be welcomed by a landscape of astonishing beauty. The massive traffic jams, the buildings, and the streets under construction, however, contradicted that expectation. An arrow pointed the way to Silver Lake. Ingwa walked that way for twenty minutes without finding anything. Finally, a woman ran by with a dog, listening to music from her headphones. Ingwa stopped her with a gesture. The woman stopped, but then started running in place. Without removing her headphones, she observed Ingwa as if waiting for his question. Ingwa was dizzy. Everything was moving around him so much that the world looked like an immense scribble.
“Where is Silver Lake?” he asked.
“This is Silver Lake.”
“The lake. Where is the lake?”
“The lake. Silver Lake.”
“Oh, the lake… over there, on the other side of that uphill street.” Still holding her arm out, the woman stopped jumping in place and went off with her dog.
Ingwa turned up that street, reached the top of the hill, and saw it from there. He started running as if he were going to dive in, but he hesitated for a moment. The lake was surrounded by two security fences topped with barbed wire. Incredulous, he went a few meters further, looking at the water through the wire fence until, mounted on the fence, he saw the poster:
THE LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT
OF WATER AND POWER
Silver Lake reservoir constitutes part of the water supply of the city of Los Angeles.
It was named in honor of Herman Silver, first president of the Municipal Water Board of this city.
Ingwa was forced to accept that it was not a lake but a reservoir, that it was named not for its color but for some corrupt official, and that the deep blue, almost emerald, that had captivated him on the computer screen was just the reflection of the sky. Seen from there, the water took on a muddy color covered with an ashen dust. In any case, Ingwa climbed the fence and jumped to the other side. In that acrobatic stunt, he cut one of his thighs but didn’t notice. The reservoir was surrounded by a cement enclosure with large cracks repaired with tar. Ingwa went down there, took off the rags that no longer sufficed to cover him, and got into the water naked.
The sun was going down, and the heavy atmosphere of the big city had impressed on the sky some magenta and orange tones, tinged with almost phosphorescent streaks. In the moment when he submerged, all his tiredness, his bone pain, and the abysmal burning of his sores went away. The cut on his leg was releasing little spirals of blood that dissolved in the water. Ingwa felt good. He opened his arms, his legs, filled his lungs with air, and, floating on his back, let himself be carried along by the current, which was moving toward the south. He looked up at the sky and smiled exaggeratedly, showing that impeccable row of big white teeth: he knew a satellite might be taking his picture.