My father used to tell me stories all the time, stories of the Old Country. That Old Country being Nyasaland, of course, and sometimes Rhodesia. Neither of those countries existed by the time he left the Old Country with my mother and me for Canada.
His stories were weird in the kind of way that stories immigrants tell can be, but it used to hammer home to me the fact that, despite being a white man, he was absolutely a foreigner to the place I was growing up. It’s not to say he didn’t have advantages over, say, some of the immigrants from Serbia, or Somalia, or Ethiopia: heavy accent or no, his first language was English, and he was outwardly indistinguishable from the dominant majority of white Canadians.
But I found it interesting just how well he got along with immigrants from those places, compared to “white bread Canadians.” At work, I remember him siding with the Serbian guy who’d been a QA agent back in his homeland, and pushing for the guy to have a lab assistant job because he was, indeed, qualified. I remember him going out of his way to give business to a Somalian guy who ran a samosa-making business or something. And he did have other things in common with those people, after all: he’d left the world he’d known for another; his educational background had been all but dismissed outright; and he experienced the people with whom he was surrounded, including, I think, me and my sisters, as a foreign culture.
And the man could tell stories. He told them all the time, though I was less around to hear them as he got older. But I remember passing afternoons or evenings in the car with him, driving from Prince Albert to Saskatoon for my bass lesson and my sisters’ Youth Orchestra rehearsals, or for my saxophone lessons on Sundays. The Sundays were the best, because it was just him and me, and though it was five hours in the car every second week, and though for about half a year a miscommunication — which my teacher never pointed out or corrected to me, though we’d prepaid the lessons — cut my lesson time in half, the real happiness of those Sundays for me was being with my dad, who told me these stories.
Crazy stories: stories of being in the riot police in Rhodesia (because Nyasaland was no more — it was Malawi, and it was independent by then, or at least the British colonials were doing there service in places other than Malawi). Stories about how my great-grandfather had been a Knight of Malta, as well as a newspaperman. (My dad said he’d covered the Spanish Civil War, but all we have of the man anymore is a notebook full of poems translated into languages like Spanish and Esperanto — and a pendant and tie pin I haven’t seen in years, and which I left with my mother years ago.
And he told me weirder stories, too: stories about mercenaries at a bar he was working at once summer; stories about secret societies targeting him as the local chicken inspector; a myth about a banana mountain that might just as easily have been heard in the barracks as read in some novel by H. Rider Haggard. It is that one, the story of the Banana Mountain, that was in my head all day on Sunday, which was father’s day. No, I didn’t forget, I just didn’t write about it. I had that story in my head, though, all day long, and I’ve been thinking it over, trying to remember it as he told me, trying to think of it.
One of the last times I saw him, I gave my father a notebook and told him he should write some of his stories down. That I’d like to read them one day. But he stayed true to his response, which was, “No, son, you’re the writer. You should write them down.”
I’ve no illusions about the fact that the stories changed, over time. That the details that crept in as he got older sometimes left me wondering which version was true — though once in a while, we discovered something was, indeed, true, that we’d doubted. (Like the story of the hidden village of two-toed people, which, when I told it to some friends last summer at WorldCon, evoked doubt, but turned out to be true — though of course the hokey explanation offered in my dad’s telling of the story, which was, “so they could climb trees better,” wasn’t at all true.) But I still feel like I should have gone back at some point and sat him down and interviewed him for a month, just to hear all those stories. I feel like, for all the listening, the one story I never really heard was his life’s story.
But then, that’s how lives are — my father didn’t know my life story, either. Your life story is your own, and finally, it’s the stories you spin off into others’ worlds that are what you give away most honestly and most freely.
So here is, as best as I can remember it, but of course, colored by my understanding (or misunderstanding), mangled by my memory…and I do find it curious that the wild bananas in the story are so unlike real wild bananas. Ah well. Maybe it was a mountainful of Gros Michels? I do remember my father telling me African use of bananas almost always depended on the banana being green. I’m sure there’s much more that’s misremembered, some by me, perhaps some by my father too, but this is the best I can do at the moment.
Anyway, here it is:
The Story of Banana Mountain
There was a man who was traveling in what is now, but was not then, Zimbabwe. It was a rough, mountainous area that he’d not been to before — not many white men had ventured in those parts. He pointed at a mountain and asked his guide what it was called.
“No, boss, we don’t go there,” the guide replied with more than a touch of anxiety in his voice. What he meant was, you don’t go there, but the man wasn’t about to take orders from a guide, and anyway, he’d only asked for information.
He cleared his throat and turned to look at his guide once again. “I asked, what’s it called, right? Now what is that mountain’s name?”
His guide looked at him warily and said, “In my language, it is called ‘Banana Mountain’.”
The man laughed. “Banana Mountain. Let me guess… bananas grow there?”
“You should not go there,” his guide said, and then he smiled. “You might never come back.”
Well, the man was used to Africa, used enough to it to know that he might never get back home again anyway. It was not a place like Glasgow, not a homey place; people got sick with fevers and illnesses nobody had ever seen before. People died for no apprent reason, or from bites by animals that didn’t yet have names in English. The danger of never returning hung above the man’s head already. So the guide’s reprimand did not deter him or quell his curiosity.
“Why might I never come back?” The guide shook his head, and squinted out across the plain, past the baobab trees and the the hazy distance. Finally, the man was so frustrated that he said, “We are going there. Today. Now. Have you been there?”
And of course, his guide had, and within a few hours, they were climbing up Banana Mountain. There was a path, overgrown but cut deep into the soil, and on both sides, fruit hung from the sagging brances of the most enormous banana trees the man had ever seen. True, he had not grown up in a land of banana trees, but he had seen them since coming to Africa, and none he’d seen before compared to these. The fruit that hung from the branches was heavy, and thick, and all but begged to be picked and savoured.
The man said to his guide, “Help me up. I want to try one.” Without bothering to hide his hesitation, the guide hunched down beside the man, becoming a footstool. That, indeed, was enough: in moments, the man was back on the ground with a great heavy bunch of bananas in his arms.
“Christ Jesus!” he said, and whistled, breaking off a banana and peeling off the skin one strip at a time. These were not normal bananas, not even what the croppers down in Nyasaland called “plantains” — these were like a whole different species of fruit. The man fetched a knife from his belt and cut out a piece, popping it into his mouth gleefully. It was sweeter, and more tangy, than any banana he had tasted in his life.
The guide eyed him warily, and then took a banana from the bunch. He peeled it with his bare hands and then bit off a piece. As he ate it, the man smiled and said, “See, there! Not the end of the world!” And there they sat for a few long minutes, in the cool green of the mountain bush, drinking down some water and having another few bananas each.
When the time came to leave, to go back down the mountain and go along their way, the man turned to his guide and said,
“Give me a lift, once more!”
“Why, boss?” the guide asked. He once more had an air of fear about him.
“Lord, with bananas like these on my uncle’s plantation, we could be rich! We need to take a few bunches down with us. Which means we should cut a few bunches down from different trees.”
The guide shook his head. “No, no, boss. This is the problem. Anyone who comes to Banana Mountain always thinks what you think: these are the best bananas in the world. They are the finest bananas any human being has ever tasted. But you have to come to Banana Mountain to have them. You cannot bring them with you when you go. There’s a powerful… spirit, here. Someone who won’t let you.”
The man laughed, and said, “Wonderful story! How primitive! Now, as I said, give me a lift! Help me up!” Hi guide, of course, complied, sighing, and the man cut down a bunch here, a bunch there, until finally he had enough to take down the mountain.
But in the time that he’d spent harvesting those few bunches, a mist had settled down in the bush, among the green, and suddenly, it was impossible to see the path. The man and his guide scrambled about among the trees and underbrush, in the humid silence — for no birds sang just then on Banana Mountain — but eventually, it became clear that they would not find the path.
They wandered through the mist, though, until finally the man said, “Alright, alright. How do we get off the mountain? How do we appease this spirit of yours?”
He heard his guide’s voice out in the mist: “Put down the bananas. If we stop carrying them, I think the mist will clear, and we can leave.”
The man laughed, but by this point, he had come to a decision: if his presence in Africa was to do the blacks any good, he would achieve it by teaching them a thing or two of common sense, and disabuse them of their superstitions. After all, Africa was known for its strange weather. How could these people have lived here so long, he mused, and still remain so backwards as to blame sudden rainstorms and fogs on the will of unseen spirits? Immediately, he dropped his bananas upon the ground and said, “There, I’ve dropped my bananas. You drop them too. You’ll see, the mist won’t clear. We’d better just set up camp.”
“Yes, boss,” the guide said, but he sounded unconvinced. They wandered a little, and found a place to set up their camp, but as soon as they had decided on the spot, the mist had suddenly cleared.
“Well, now, look at that!” the man laughed. “No need to pitch camp! Let’s just get a few bunches of bananas, and get on the trail straight away!”
The guide looked at the man in surprise, but said nothing. He knew better than to explain what the man would soon be learning through experience.
A few minutes later, they were on the trail, arms full of bunches of lovely bananas, stumbling through a thick mist that had once again descended, slowly, so incrementally that they had not believed it could come in so thick as it had, when the man cursed. The trail was soon lost to them both.
“Blast this fog!” the man said.
“It’s the bananas, boss. If we put them down, the mountain will let us go.”
The man cursed again, more foully, but the guide heard the bunches of bananas the man was holding thump against the ground. He set down his own bunches and said, “Let’s go off this way. I think we will find our way soon.” And they set off for a while, and soon enough, they did find the path again, as if it had been simply waiting for them. There was no mist to be seen, no fog at all, and the man gazed along the path. He could see clear down to the valley.
“Aha! See! It’s a straight shot down, now, from here. Let’s backtrack a bit, and get some bananas to bring with us. Just a few, quick, before another fog rolls in.”
His guide nodded the way men do when talking to children and mad souls, and followed the man back up the slope, to the nearest banana tree. Again, he let the man step upon his back, and he noticed, this time, that the man was in a hurry. He was afraid, this white man. It was not the first time he had sensed fear in a white man, but never mixed with such indignation. The man would get his bananas or die trying, the guide thought. Probably the latter, if he insisted on it.
And indeed, when the bunch of bananas came loose, the man fell from his guide’s back, collapsing with a thud on the ground beside him. The guide asked him, in his own tongue, whether he was alright. He’d heard the man use that word, knew he knew it. But the man said nothing for many long minutes, only groaning and rubbing his head.
By the time the white man had sat up, a heavy fog had already begun to roll in, and dark was starting to fall. They had no choice, now, but to set up camp. And that they did, and they ate bananas that night for their supper, with the chittering noise of monkeys at play in the dark all around and the crackle of a campfire at their feet, and the man asked, “Why?”
“Why, boss?” the guide asked.
“Why does the mountain not want us to leave with its bananas?”
“I don’t know.”
“But surely… surely there’s a story?” The man seemed desperate, and so the guide nodded, and took a deep breath.
“A long time ago,” the guide said, “There was a chief who lived around here. He was a big chief, a top man for many of the people here. Many villages gave him tribute, and called him chief. So he had a lot of gold, and many wives, and many beautuful things of his own. And when he was old, and dying, he said to the witch doctor, ‘Protect me. Protect my things. Give me a good grave. Put me on banana mountain,’ and tthe witch doctor did what he was told.
“And that was long ago, but the witch doctor is still here,” the guide said, and looked around himself with a small, dark smile. The man looked around, too, and he would have sworn that he saw eyes, out there, in the dark. Gleaming, hungry eyes that rarely saw firelight.
“And that is the secret of banana mountain. The witch doctor is still here, still protecting the grave of his chief. The chief loved the bananas, that was why he was buried here. And the witch doctor knew that if the bananas could go off the mountain, that people would come. Many people. If you can taste them here, but never leave with them — if you can never taste the banana except on the mountain — it would make people afraid of this place. It would make people stay away from this place. Like our land. If you white men could not take anything away from here, you would not come here at all, would you? So he makes the mists and fogs, to keep away men like you and me.”
With that, the guide went quiet, and covered himself with a blanket. The man crawled into his tent and did the same, praying that mosquitoes would not find him. But it was not mosquitoes that troubled him, that night: it was dreams of firelit eyes staring at him from across a gulf of ages, waiting and following him. He felt as if they would follow him right off the mountain, back to Harare, back indeed all the way to Glasgow.
And when morning came, the sun shining bright, the man, still haunted by those eyes, crept from his tent. His guide had already set out some bananas to eat, and had heated some water for him to wash his face in.
“Shall we give it one more try, boss? Taking a bunch or two off the mountain?” the guide asked, smiling in what might have been wry amusement, or might just be what the white men in town preferred to consider simplemindedness. Such a tone might have risked the guide a beating in any other circumstances, but here, on Banana Mountain, still haunted, the man said nothing. He merely shook his head.
He knew, now, that it was time to leave the mountain behind, the bunches left to grow and rot without him touching them, the grave to lie undisturbed. Those waiting eyes to glimmer in the darkness of the empty night.