Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated South African Abigail George is a poet, essayist, blogger, short story writer and novelist. Her latest book is The Scholarship Girl. It's available via Amazon in the States and African Books Collective in the United Kingdom. She is the recipient of four writing grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, the Centre for the Book in Cape Town and ECPACC in East London. She briefly studied film at Newtown Film and Television School.
Head made of stone sound the alarm for here hallucinations abound like driftwood, a gull sweeping through the sky overhead. In the photograph her skin is as dark as dry blood as she stands in her white dress. She is the virgin bride on the surface. Is she happy standing next to her groom for her features communicate nothing to me? But her groom is smiling in the picture while the path to my heart lies in ruins. It’s a path that reflects my standing in society. I am unmarried at thirty, having born no children from a womb that spirals in a rush of air, an echo of a flurry of blood for five days. When I speak now, it is in whispers in the company of other women who have crossed the boundary from youth into wifedom and motherhood effortlessly. I have been left behind and books, reading only gives up so much to the intellect of a woman (I have learned that this is not what other women covet).
It is a hollow and empty existence that I am engaged in, what am I living for then if not to spread myself across the flame of the dead, yielding myself to the flesh of their book histories. Once there were altered states of imagination and now becomes mine to claim. To shut myself in when the world becomes cold, to commit myself to hide away, (no matter how unbearable it becomes it still feels like home. It is a life to live even if it is always winter agents that come upon me. Ah, my comrades, they comfort me in my skin’s glowering pose and that which is my sanctuary, where I lay my head to rest, to rejuvenate my senses that informs the psychology that I lead with. The canvas of the sun that breaks me like vultures and death.
The sun is silent over the sea mocking me while gliding across my shoulder blades like the falling water of a waterfall. Just as there is a miracle of life in seawater so there is in translation. She eats like a bird keeping all her secrets to herself like the surface of carrion passing triumphantly into a blue oblivion where closure is self-imposed like the intimacy of letters in a novel language as thin as the width of a thread all thumbs. The weight of water has lightness in it. I’ve endured her harvest, my sister’s time away from me, and the fact that summers have stolen her away from me. It has emptied my heart of wonder, of spells, locked me instead into building a wall around me, where I wait for her in silence. I wait for her to release me from the voice inside my head that has carried me from our childhood years, now to our passage as grown women. She has taught me to hold onto the familiar, the passing of the heavier moments slipping into time, pools, and curves of momentum and motion.
The land that time simply forgets to acknowledge. She seems to perfect everything. Her being is not as wooden as mine and her manners as stiff, her words are not strange and challenging. Words do not cure her like they do me instead my sister fills me up with meaning, with her marked pure rituals that came on the brink of her womanhood. Time has marked us as a minority, liberated us from a scheming mother, a quiet and gentle father. Now our parents have faded into the background like voids in the inner space of a lucid dream.
Flowers infect thoughts of death in the cemetery bittersweet like rage, a strange, demented vocabulary as if it were the memory of ill health. My emptiness dies with the dawn and finally calm I heal old wounds. I call this progress, obstacles and challenges have ceased to exist for me because all I see when I dig is the blade of the sun, I have to endure for there is no other way out of the abyss except to jump over the black edge.
If I was writing an anthem for the youth where would I place meaning, how would utopia fit, the missing link, the most primal of screams, the poverty of the mind, that great divide between place and time. Where would a helpless poet transformed by ripples of a half-life of drowning in garlic, the familiar, the discovered plate find herself? Where would the poet frightened to death to be smitten, who instead embraces to be cured of it and having deciphered enough of it in lovely words threaded through her head realise that the world is not her home. It is only a meeting point where the courage for the broken is exposed and where it no longer mocks immortality, marriage or takes possession of physical space in an agonising waiting game. Female poets see things in interiors, as instruments that can cut through the blue, the picture, details of what a house means. For them it’s a song.
And when I fell in love the feeling was like the windsong windskin in Birches, throughout the branches of the tree brushing strands of my hair into my face. Love felt like a great escape but when he left the hospital he took the love with him and I became a stature of a woman, fearless, cold and heartless. I had notches on a belt. When I walked in the park it was not wilderness yet. It was only wilderness that I had to transcend in imagination. In a way it was love and in another way it was just a picture of love going up in flames, going up in smoke. I pocketed them all like silver keys calling them my dream keys for the future.
But doesn’t everyone live in a dream world. They don’t live like me with lithium.
Catching tales of love with lithium. So I stare at my reflection. The messy and dirty unkempt hair and tell myself, that smile suits you well. It’s a ghost of the past sinking back into childhood where you made negotiations of the sea with your sunflower-yellow bucket and brick-red spade, your cone dripping on your sandy foot. And later the grammar and spells of gifted stars will rise above dunes like scrolling parachutes. But now it feels like winter. As if it has been winter all my life. Everything is dying around me. It feels as if I am dying to let go.
In my nightmares there is the Mysterious Skin of a Haunted Street. All my old haunts figure. A school hallway, walking to school, in a classroom with a hated teacher, a friend’s sweet face, the bully I feared the most on the playground. Going up then down is no fun. Really it was just a basket of hell as if I was sitting in the dark by myself watching bad television.
Every day at the hospital, I walk from room to room in the ward. It is a day in recovery. It can inspire. You’re free to dream. No one can say anything if you do. The bright lights of the big city can hardly be seen from anywhere on the grounds. High walls and trees shield me. You can go from feeling like the most capable human in the world and then when that goes you feel extraordinarily incompetent, the introverted nature of being ill assumes fierce control and you are left retiring and docile, cooling your heels. My bright shouts draw a red line of emotional self-destructive behaviour through me. It doesn’t take much to get me to a plane of being piloted by the life lessons depression leaves me with. There is something of a sweet dream about it. I’ve grown to love to fall into that sleep. It’s a skill.
Sometimes you think the journey of the illness renders you invisible like air in your addiction for the tiny ball of golden light of health. So even if you’re self-conscious of any small mistake you make, it makes you feel beautifully humanoid as if you weren’t constructed by glorious organs, perfect tissue, cells, platelets, blood and bone and the image of genes in a jungle of veins. The doctors would like to think of change from being ill to an undeniable state of physical wellness was instant but I think that happened for the most part only in their dreams. Here, in this nameless, shapeless country, there were scenes of looking out into darkness, badly drawn addiction, and the act of alcoholism that had played a role in someone’s life, a life of a family. Sufferers and victims and survivors bonded over a meal, gossip, the chit-chat of small talk. We were all joined together in the pursuit of becoming an outpatient. Of escaping what so easily we had come to think of as a route to follow to reality, normalcy.
I was a discoverer of the fractured known and the terrible force of the unknown. The flow I had to come to grips with clasped battle lines. For the most part I felt like a pin in a pincushion, snow falling and given room to grow spreading itself across the landscape.
The jewel of mental health is to keep your spirit intact. You are at the mercy of the honesty of the illness. You’re always curious to succeed even though you’re at your most fragile. Humanity, normality still had the power to seduce. I had not completely abandoned that trail of thought. Hunger and hell became equals. The colour of the day was usually intensely blue (when I felt the depression articulate its nightmarish self), white (when I spent most of the day reading paperbacks, feeling acutely medicated and that it was most unnatural feeling that I had ever felt) or red. That was when I couldn’t put my rage and frustration and pack it into the life force of words. The only thing I could do was storing it up in reserves. It gave me energy. But that energy was temporary like a fuse that blows or a spark.
When I left the hospital all I wanted to do was read books that doctors had written about depression, that pharmaceutical companies printed in their bright little pamphlets filled with colour and magazine models demonstrating ‘sadness’, ‘family life affected by depression’ and the symptoms. I could tick them all off one by one. In no uncertain terms I was depressive. I read books on depression in which the detailed, uncompromising text left me reeling and scribbling away with a compelling and affecting urgency. I picked up memoirs or books on the lives of creative people who had suffered just like I had. I always found a vision, a better version of myself being reflected back at me.
The bottom of depression sinks further and further away into an abyss of nothingness. There is nothing I can do about it except stare into space until my eyes hurt and start to water or close them and wish the spell away. Once I was a city type of person rushing everywhere I needed to go but it soon paled. Poetry never did. And although poets were people whose lives where often not sanguine or bliss I believed in them, worshipped them. I discovered there were walls everywhere. To keep me in, protect me, to keep the death of me out.
I watch my weight constantly as if I’m under surveillance. I pick at my food. Nothing is good for me. I swear I eat in little bites as if it would help me in some way as if there is no dietician watching over my shoulder at the portion size. I don’t keep it down for long. My throat burns as I run water in the bathroom. Nothing is nourishing or filling enough. To me I never had a healthy relationship with food. I devoured the heaps of food on my plate with delight, savouring every crumb. All through high school I was skinny. But the world when it turns on me soon everything begins to hurt like the plague.
Why couldn’t all my eccentricities translate itself into something that was not touched by madness? But there is a powerful triumph in all of this – I can still write. It is my Source.
I wished I could shrug off blood, sweat and tears in high heels, with alluring self-confidence in an office space like my sister. But that is not me. It would not increase my knowledge of this planet; make me worthy of being in competition with my contemporaries.
It is disheartening feeling, thinking that you are never good enough. Never perfect. It came from a padded childhood and the reward of that had already shown up in my life. Already I had convinced myself I was less than zero, just a blurred negative. Imagine thinking so little of yourself that you thought being self-destructive was redemptive in some way.
When the world went black and the sky became hard, wrapped in stone, magic would course through me, my fingertips tingling, promising me a slight reprieve.