A child brings a letter to Rev. Stephen Kumalo. She appears hungry, so Stephen sends her to his wife for some food. He then examines the letter and observes that it is from Johannesburg. It is dirty, and has passed through many hands. He muses on how many people he has known who have gone to Johannesburg and vanished, including his son Absalom, brother John, and sister Gertrude. None of them have written in a long time.
The child who brings Stephen the letter is hungry because the community is suffering—the cycle of care between man and land is broken. Stephen gives the child food—he still fights against that breakdown. The letter and Stephen’s musings show how Johannesburg has swallowed up so many people—not just their bodies, but their words too—those who leave seem to disappear.
Stephen hesitates to open the letter, and shows it to his wife. They ponder who might have sent the letter: though Absalom didn’t send it, it might concern him, or it might be from John. They comment how strange it is that they’ve wanted a letter like this for so long, and yet are now afraid to open it. Finally, Stephen’s wife opens the letter. It is from Rev. Theophilus Msimangu of Johannesburg. He implores Stephen to come to Johannesburg, because Gertrude is very sick.
Stephen and Stephen’s wife’s instincts are spot on: nothing good comes from Johannesburg. So naturally they're afraid of the letter’s contents, especially in regards to their son. Ironically, they're right to be afraid for their son, but the letter does not reveal that he is in trouble—that realization will only come later.
After sending the child away, Stephen asks his wife to get the “St. Chad’s” money, so that he may go and fetch his sister. But once he has the money in his hand, he can't bring himself to actually use it because the money was meant to send his son Absalom to school. Stephen’s wife insists, however, that the money is no longer necessary because Absalom has gone to Johannesburg and won’t be returning, because no one returns from Johannesburg. He doesn’t even write. Stephen, upset, accuses his wife of “opening the door” of the idea that their son might not return. She says that the door has been open for a long time; he just refused to see it.
In using the money that had been set aside for their son’s future, Stephen and his wife are giving up on that future. The city has taken away opportunity from Absalom, in more ways than one. The fact that Stephen only now seems to recognize the fact that the money will not be needed for Absalom's schooling, when it seems that his wife recognized it long ago, shows that Stephen has been in denial about what is obviously true.
Stephen reminds his wife that unlike most Zulus, they only have one son. His wife accuses him of tormenting himself. He says that he is not tormenting himself—it is the people who have vanished to Johannesburg and do not write that torment him. He sarcastically suggests that perhaps the white man has something to do with the missing letters, or perhaps the letters have been blown away by the wind. His wife accuses him of tormenting her, too.
The disappearance of family members to Johannesburg has a corrosive effect on those left behind, who must watch their communities disintegrate. Stephen's comment about the white man is notable for two reasons. First because it indicates that there is some racial tension between white and blacks. But second, that Stephen himself doesn't share that view: he doesn't blame the white man; he blames his family that does not write.
When Stephen realizes how his anger is hurting his wife, he calms himself and gives in to what he knows is true, and they count out the money. Worried that he will not have enough for the journey, Stephen’s wife gives Stephen some more money that she had been saving for a stove and for his clothes. He makes plans to leave by train the next day, and then apologizes to his wife for being unkind. He goes and prays for forgiveness while his wife suffers silently, as she has for many years.
This sacrifice of the needed money is just the beginning of what Johannesburg will demand of Stephen. The city is like a black hole into which everything—people, money, tradition—falls and is consumed. Stephen’s nature is revealed when he humbly apologizes to his wife—he is a good man, troubled by how the world has changed.
The roads and trains all lead toward Johannesburg. The narrator tells you to be grateful if you can sleep through the ride.