LOST AND FOUND
Jessica Lukasik is an aspiring writer with a million and one stories to tell. She is a student at Full Sail University studying creative writing and currently lives in Indiana with her family. Jessica's main goal is to someday influence people with her stories, as she has been influenced all her life by other's.
The Guests in Room 129
“What do you think, darling?” Lyle said cheerily.
Elanor shot him a cold glare. “It’ll have to do, won’t it?” she replied, her words measured and biting. Lyle flinched and broke away from her gaze. He turned away to step out onto the attached patio. Elanor finally set her suitcase on the far bed, opening it and pulling out clothes, refolding them for lack of anything better to do. After emptying both suitcases into the old dresser, she sat on the bed and glanced around.
The walls were an ugly mustard yellow color, and the beds had brown, green, and white stripes. The carpet was dark brown and, she was sure, coarse underfoot. The least offensive object in the room was the chair beside the door, made of dark wood and cream-colored fabric. Walking over to it, she sat, only to immediately shoot right back up. That had to be the most uncomfortable chair in the world! Huffing indignantly, she stalked out after Lyle.
Her husband was sitting at the small glass table in an old wicker chair that looked as if it may collapse beneath his weight. Elanor took the seat opposite him on the equally unsteady bench. She crossed her legs and brushed her hair out of her eyes, straightening her day dress beneath her. “You look lovely, darling,” Lyle said, seeing her fidget.
“Quite lost in this place,” she sniffed. “The way that man in the lobby spoke, as though no one ever taught him manners!”
“Remember, my love, these people are not used to seeing a proper lady like yourself gracing their halls.”
Elanor glared at him. “And rightly so! Can you imagine any of our friends being caught dead in a place like this?”
“None of our friends are experiencing the… difficulties that we-“
“Difficulties!” Elanor shouted, somewhat hysterical now. “You mean the difficulties where you threw away all of our money and lost us everything?” Lyle tried to hush her, eyeing the wooden fence separating them from other guests. “None of our friends experience those difficulties because none of them are as foolish as you!” She stood and stalked back into the room angrily, the clashing colors only serving to fuel her rage.
Lyle followed at a calmer pace, shutting the back door gently behind himself. “I made some bad investments,” he said softly. “I told you, I can fix this, I just need some time to figure things out.”
Elanor stared resolutely at the wall, ignoring him. “Well, once you get our home back and restore our standing in our circle, then come see me. Because until then you don’t have a prayer of fixing us.” With that she stood and walked into the en suite bathroom, slamming the door in Lyle’s distraught face.
Learn more at dariusjoneswriter.com or follow him on Twitter @DariusJonesWrit.
“Deep in the jungle. About a kilometer upstream from where the brown river forks,” the man said.
“But which river?”
“I don’t know. A man picked us up one day on the edge of Iquitos, saying we could make good money. We got on the back of the truck and we drove into the jungle. I don’t remember the way.”
“And when did you become sick?” Dr. Katharina Rodriquez asked.
“About three weeks ago. I thought it was nothing at first. I was just a little dizzy, I thought it was the heat,” the man said. “But it didn’t go away. I saw others who had been there longer. They were worse. Some could hardly walk. The worst off would spend half the day lying in their hammocks and then stumble down to the smelters by the river.”
“One day, I couldn’t work either. I lay in my hammock completely still, but the world kept rocking. I knew I had to escape. The next night, I felt a bit better and snuck away in the night, down to the riverside. I stole a canoe and took it downriver until I came to a small village. The villagers let me stay for a few days and told me about your clinic. So I came.”
“I see,” Katharina said, motioning to Alejandro.
Katharina and Alejandro walked to a workbench against the far wall of the hut.
“Just like the others,” Katharina whispered. “At first, they’re fine. But over time the poison accumulates and…”
“But why don’t they ever say where the mine is?” Alejandro asked.
“Who knows?” Katharina answered. “Maybe they forget. Maybe they never really know where they end up. Maybe the mine changes places each season. Or maybe they’re just afraid.”
The man leaned forward on the cot, almost doubled over. His right hand rested on his thigh, trembling. He clutched the trembling hand with his left hand, and the two hands started to vibrate together, one on top of the other. The man looked away, pretending not to notice.
“You’ve got your work cut out for you, Alejandro,” Katharina said. “Illegal miners never stay in one location long. And the authorities, well, they won’t be much help unless the president is about to visit.”
Katharina approached the man.
“You’re lucky, Mr. Morales,” Katharina said. “You left in time. I think we should be able to treat you.”
“What is it?” the man asked.
“That silver substance you described, the one they use at the mine.”
“It’s mercury, a brain poison.”
“My God,” the man whispered, running his trembling hand through his hair.
“For you it’s not too late. But if there are others, they must get out and soon.”
“When do we start?” Alejandro asked.
“Judging by those clouds, as soon as we can,” Pedro, his father, said, gazing into the late afternoon sun.
On the horizon, great steam clouds rose from the edge of the Amazon just over the horizon. The clouds flowed up and up and up the foothills, forming into towering gray clouds on the far edge of the lake.
The remains of the stone temple around the two men had a bare, earthen floor. There was no roof now and never had been. In the days before the Spanish had come, it had been covered with golden thatch. At the midpoint of each wall was a stylized mask of a forgotten Aymara god.
Alejandro knew the ritual by heart. He had been accompanying his father to the peak of Taquile Island in the center of Lake Titicaca since he was a small boy. Alejandro knew that he could joke and banter up to the peak and even inside the temple, but as soon as they started to unpack, his father expected total silence. In businesslike quiet, they would set down a woven blanket of llama wool in the center of the temple. They would place the offerings on the blanket one by one, working their way out from the center. First came pulled llama wool, then sweet potato, then tobacco. Purple maize, limes and coca leaves followed. Finally there was the chicha, a beer made from fermented corn. Alejandro placed a small lantern on the center of the blanket as his father dug small earthen channels around the edges of the blanket to receive the libations of chicha. Soon, everything was ready.
“Today, we must hurry,” Pedro said.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to hurry,” Alejandro said.
“Sh! Don’t be sacrilegious, not here!”
Pedro kindled a small fire in front of the blanket as the fringes of the storm clouds turned orange and pink in the setting sun.
The two men sat on the blanket, stone-faced and silent, listening to the kindling begin to crack. His father fed llama wool into the fire first and then the tobacco. The wool and tobacco sparked and ignited, crumbling into one another in the heat of the young fire. Dark smoke curled upwards in the growing darkness.
“Pacha-mama, beckon to our call!” Pedro said, switching from Spanish to Aymara, their ancestral tongue.
Pedro poured the chicha into the earthen channels on either side of the blanket. The liquid lazily rolled down the channels, encircling the blanket on four sides: north, south, east and west.
“Pacha-mama, Sacred Earth…hear us.”
His father gathered up a fistful of coca leaves and fed them into the fire one by one.
From across the lake, a flash of lightning was followed by the low, loud rumble of thunder. Alejandro looked into the distance. The storm clouds had broken out of the Amazonian basin far to the east and had begun to spill over the eastern border of the lake. Tendrils of lightning illuminated the looming towers of cloud from within.
“One crack of thunder doesn’t mean a thing,” Alejandro whispered.
Pedro shot a judgmental look at his son.
“Pacha-mama, Earth Mother,” Pedro began, “Listen to what I have to say…”
Wind stirred the barren moonscape of the high Andes. Not far away, storm clouds tumbled into one another, warring colossi of currents and eddies gripped in battle.
Near the peak of Llullaillaco, two hooded figures sat huddled next to one another, motionless in the darkness. The wind blew and waves of dust fluttered their robes. They sat cross-legged, seemingly oblivious, their hands folded in their laps with cloth hoods over their heads. Large drops of rain began to fall one by one on the barren earth, creating dark circles as they hit the fine dust.
As the clouds drew closer, there was a loud crack and a shaft of lightning reached down and struck the larger figure. The lightning ran through the body and into the earth. For a moment, nothing happened. All was as it had been for centuries.
The figure inhaled loudly, grabbed her throat and screamed, the hood muffling the sound. She ripped the bag from her head and looked around, her eyes darting from side to side. No one was near. She turned and looked down the mountain in the direction she had come.
The men had gone. The long train of pack llamas was gone too. But when had they left? An hour or a thousand years ago?
Overhead dark clouds rumbled and lightning flashed, but most of the rain had already been spent on the lower slopes. Moonlight poured down through the shredded remnants of storm clouds.
Qantuta looked around. All was as it had been. Patches of melting snow still surrounded the peak, glowing silvery in the moonlight. The small silver figurines were still arranged on the mat in front of her. A rich, red and orange carpet still lay under her feet.
She turned and gazed at her brother. He sat motionless and silent, the hood still covering his head. In front of him was an orange and red mat similar to the one before her. Carefully arranged on the mat was a procession of small silver figurines: priests, warriors, llamas, condors and serpents. He sat like he was looking down at them, about to reach out and play with them. But he still slept.
“No,” she said in Aymara, her native tongue, her voice tight and high with seven hundred years of fine dust. “I must not. He would not want me to weep.”
She gazed down at her hands. Unlike all these other things, they had changed. They were no longer the hands of a girl, but of an aged sorceress. The skin was dry and stiff, the nails yellow and cracked. She rolled up the sleeve covering her arm. Her arm was thinner than it had been, the skin dried and taut with small wrinkles gathering around her wrist and elbow. She lifted the leg of her dress and the skin was the same: sallow, cracked and dry.
So, she thought, all the priests’ efforts had been for naught. The magic had not taken. It had all been wasted. She straightened her back and pulled down the sleeve of her dress. Slowly and stiffly, unlike before, she stood. As she took to her feet, she stumbled. Regaining her balance, she turned to face her brother. She opened her mouth, but no words came. She thought she should remove the bag from his head, but decided against it. She wanted to remember him as he had been before they came to the sacred mountain to be sacrificed.
“I do not know why I woke and you sleep on,” she said to him. “But it is as Viracocha would have it, not as we would.”
She turned and looked down the peak the way they had come, where the head of the long column of priests, warriors and llamas must have gone. She had a feeling they had all vanished long ago.
She turned to her brother. “I do not know what has happened, but I intend to find out.”
Qantuta gazed at the small figurines that had lain before her during her sleep. She took the first figurine, a llama, and placed it carefully in the K’eperina cloth slung around her shoulders. She tightened the knot of the K’eperina across her chest until it was snug.
She gazed down the peak in the direction they had climbed up. It seemed reasonable to go down the same route. She began to walk in that direction, but her foot caught on a small outcropping and she stumbled forward, crashing to the earth. Only her outstretched arms broke her fall. When she lifted her head, she noticed a small groove gouged into the earth about an inch deep. It had been smoothed down by years of dust and wind, but it had not disappeared.
“A ceque line,” she thought. “Even here the great Sapa Inca has left his mark. It will lead me to them, the very heart of the puma. And once I find that…”
Qantuta stood, shook the dust from her long skirt and continued to walk down the mountain in the dark, the moonlight her only guide.
Qantuta stopped in the middle of the mountain path. She heard it more clearly now, the familiar clack of spindle striking stone. Qantuta pressed her body tightly against an outcropping of rock and peered around the corner.
In the moonlight, a woman approached. She wore a long black dress, a K’eperina over her shoulder and a large, wide-brimmed hat. She held a spindle and thread in her hand, and as she walked, it struck the packed earth and rock of the path.
Hiding behind the rock, Qantuta thought carefully about what to do. She stepped into the path. She bent her head down and turned it to one side, so as not to meet the woman face on. She walked forward and the clacking grew louder.
They approached one another and within ten feet, the other woman briefly raised her head and perfunctorily said, “¡Buenos Noches!”
Qantuta stopped in her tracks, stunned. It was not Quecha, nor Aymara, nor any language she had ever heard.
“Bunaz Nok’he!” Qantuta answered in her raspy voice, doing her best to mimic the alien tongue of the woman.
Moonlight fell on Qantuta’s upturned face. The other woman staggered back at the sight of the desiccated, sallow face. Her spindle fell from her hands and struck the earth with a sharp knock. She gripped the rock behind her, forcing her body back against it. Qantuta took a step back, and the woman, sensing her chance, tore herself from the rock and ran down the path the way she had come. A few paces down the path her hat flew from her head, but she seemed not to care.
“Strange woman,” Qantuta thought. “A spirit perhaps?”
But no spirit would act like that, she knew. Once, when she was very young, she had met one. That spirit had been brave, utterly fearless. A spirit would never turn and run. Only people acted like that.
Qantuta bent down and grabbed the spindle and thread at her feet. She looked at them in the moonlight. She lifted them up as if to hand them back over, but the woman was gone. She grabbed the ends of the thread and began to stitch and turn the raw wool, her fingers recalling the old, familiar motions. She started down the path, the spindle striking the stones as she walked.
She paused a few paces ahead, standing over the woman’s hat. She placed the spindle down on a nearby rock, picked up the hat and examined it. It was black with a wide brim embroidered around the edges with large red and yellow flowers.
“Ata-kachaw,” she said in Aymara, caressing the material with her hands.
Perhaps it was what the women wore in the forests far to the east? She placed the hat on her head. It was tight, but would do.
“Ata-kachaw,” she repeated, glancing up at it.
She grabbed the spindle from the rock. Spinning and walking, she continued to follow the ceque line down the mountain. In a few minutes the clacking took on a rhythm and she was lost in thoughts of home and long ago. She knew, in time, the path would lead her to the ever-beating heart of the puma-shaped city. The Qorikancha temple at the center of the capital, Cuzco.
Qantuta bent down and touched the earth.
Like her, it had changed. The sand and the river were gone. The dual plaza of Haukaypata was no more. The place where all the peoples of Tawantinsuyu had gathered—coming from the jungle, the mountains and the sea—to celebrate the annual triumph of the sun in a ritual of song, dance and chicha drinking had been covered over.
Qantuta stood and picked up the stone that it was her duty to carry as a commoner passing through the sacred city. Strange people passed by as they always had in Cuzco. She knew that most of them were not Quecha, Aymara or even Uros. The people were too tall and their language was too quick and used too many harsh consonants. What was worse, none of them carried stones, they went here and there, in the sacred capital, without burdens. Much had changed.
In the shadows of the Cuzco night, no one marked her out as different. She was not dressed differently from many of the other women from nearby villages who passed through the square. Strange carts with round black wheels trundled along the streets, carrying men and things as they travelled over the stones of the central square. Large poles with a light at their top, torches without flame, cast down sallow light on the central square.
The golden thatch roofs of the city were gone too. The strange men had covered the tops of their buildings with stone. If Pacha-mama decided to shake, as she must from time to time, they would soon learn their mistake. Large buildings loomed over the square in the darkness, and small gray birds thronged, pecking and purring, in their hundreds on the ground. As she walked by, they parted, scattered and reformed behind her.
The ceque line was not clear here, but she had been to the puma-shaped city before and knew the way to the Qorikancha. She crossed the square and walked into an alley lined with large, black stones laid by the Sapa Inca’s men, which fit together snugly. She exited the passageway and came out on another smaller square overlooking the eastern entrance to the city.
Qantuta gasped. Before her stood the Qorikancha, but it was not as it had been. The black stones of the base of the temple remained, but stacked on top of them were smaller pale, yellow stones hastily cut and laid. They were not neatly fitted one on top of the other, but made to fit with a white paste between them.
“The men are larger, but their stones smaller,” she thought.
A black fence surrounded the temple, but she knew another way in. She walked up a small alleyway and came out on an overlook above the temple. Squeezing through a small hole in the gate, she emerged in the complex itself. A man stood guarding the entrance. She waited for him to turn away. She passed quietly down a corridor leading to the entrance of the Qorikancha.
She stopped at the dark threshold of the temple, not knowing why. She remembered: she must remove her sandals before entering. She placed them to one side and stepped across the threshold.
Like the rest of the city, the Sun Temple had changed beyond recognition. There was a wooden roof instead of thatch. The Inti Punchao, the living god of gold, was gone. Not a bit of gold or silver remained, only the black stone of the foundations and the yellow stones of the New Men above. Someone had stripped the temple bare.
Qantuta walked to the front of the temple.
“Where are you?” she whispered, her words echoing flatly off the bare stone. “Where have you gone?”
It was clear now. Some great calamity had befallen the Sapa Inca, his chief priest and his mighty people. The all-mighty Viracocha had proven himself more just than people had given him credit for. The Sapa Inca and his descendants had paid for their haughtiness. Perhaps the new people had conquered him as he had conquered so many others? But these people? How could it be? They seemed far too thoughtless to take down such a great man, let alone his army. Yet it had come to pass.
She turned and walked slowly back to the temple’s entrance. She put on her sandals and walked out of the Qorikancha, returning to the garden square looking toward the east. The black stone of the foundations laid down by the Incas glowed like polished flint in the moonlight. She gazed at the moon dreamily.
“Moon Mother, forgive me for coming at night to Cuzco, but I had no choice. The day leaves me so tired that I cannot move.”
She blinked at the moon and it seemed to shimmer.
She sensed something in the distance and felt a longing well up inside her. A longing to depart, to leave. But where? She turned to the northeast, and in her mind’s eye she saw where the ceque line lay. She could follow it with her eyes shut all the way down into the jungle.
“‘Come?’” she asked the moon, not knowing why. “But where?”
There was no answer, but a light breeze brushed her cheek, coming down from the heights of the city and heading east.
The wind blew again in the same direction, but stronger.
“So be it,” she whispered to the moon and took the first step away from the heart of the puma down to the jungle.
The path under her feet had changed from stone to mud. The moonlight pierced the canopy above, casting beams on the path every few paces. Strands of mist snaked across the floor of the jungle like twisted rope.
She had put away her thread and spindle. The ceque line was faded here and harder to make out. No one had maintained it for some time and the cloud forest ate away at the works of man faster than the high, dry altiplano. She stopped and peered more closely at the shallow, worn-down ceque line. If she had interpreted it correctly, the place she was searching for was not far.
She walked a few more feet and saw that she must turn off the main path. She ducked under a leaf the size of her head and came to a small clearing.
In the center of the clearing was a small pool under a stone basin carved with stylized grooves. There was a notch in the top of the basin through which water had once spilled. The notch was dry and water dribbled over the lip of the basin into the pool below. Qantuta climbed to the top of the stone basin and saw that small rocks had fallen into the notch, blocking the flow of water.
Qantuta began to pull plants, weeds, stones and debris out of the channel at the top of the basin. After a couple hours of work, water began to flow slowly through the central channel again. She watched as a single thread of silvery water spilled into the center of the pool below.
Her job finished, she climbed down and sat by the edge of the pool. Qantuta removed the K’eperina from around her shoulders and took off her sandals. She pulled her orange and crimson tunic over her head and combed out her hair, the feature that time had been kindest to. Her long, black braids gently tickled her naked back each time she moved her head.
She stood over the basin and saw herself and the sliver of moon over her shoulder reflected in the pool. In that dark reflection of night, she saw herself as she had been, not as she was. Her skin luminous and brown, her breasts lithe and soft, her hair falling down the length of her torso.
She stepped to the edge of the pool and wiggled her toes over the water. With a deep breath she jumped out into space and felt herself falling through the air. There was a loud splash and for a moment Qantuta disappeared under the water, holding her breath.
The water felt refreshing at first, but turned colder. It began to sting sharply and burn. She burst to the surface with a scream and waded through the water, the water rippling violently behind her. She threw herself up onto the bank, panting.
She grasped her right forearm and started to claw at it, trying to relieve the tingling burn of her skin. Something in the water had soaked through her skin.
Her right hand began to tremble and she examined it in the moonlight. The fingers slowly stopped trembling and began to contort and freeze into place. Her left arm began to flinch. She felt the skin all over her body begin to burn uncontrollably. A spasm ran through her back like a lightning bolt flowing through her. Her mind raced as she turned over, grinding her back into the earth to feel something, anything besides the burning.
In her mind’s eye she saw a mighty river pouring into the sea. A disembodied spirit, she raced up the river until it became a stream and the stream came to the pool. She saw herself writhing beside the pool, but her spirit stopped only for a moment. She traveled further on and came to a place where men huddled next to campfires on the banks of a river. Their day over, they poured something dark and silvery into the stream and headed back to their huts. The moon shone down on the surface of the river as silver clouds swirled in its depths.
At that moment, she realized what she must do. With her remaining strength, she dragged her convulsing body to the edge of the pool, rolled on her side and let herself fall into the water.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Alejandro said.
“Maybe your instruments aren’t calibrated correctly?” Pedro, his father, said.
“No, they’re working. I’ve tested them again and again,” Alejandro said, his fingers squeezing the end of a brown paper bag on his lap.
“Maybe they’ve closed down the mine and moved on? Miners do that all the time. Whenever they feel the authorities are getting too close.”
“It’s possible, but I just don’t feel it in my gut.” He paused and asked, “I was wondering…”
“What?” Pedro answered.
“Tonight. Can we go up to the top of Taquile Island?”
“Time? For what?” Pedro asked. “To make another sacrifice to Pacha-mama?”
“Yes,” Alejandro answered, his eyes downcast.
“Well, I never thought my own son would—”
“Please,” Alejandro said. “You’re not making it any easier.”
“Stop,” Alejandro said, placing the brown bag on the table. “I brought something.”
He opened the bag. Alejandro pulled a small object out of the bag and delicately laid it on the table. It was a dried llama fetus, its head bowed and eyes closed.
“Pure white?” Pedro asked, leaning forward.
“I searched every market stall in Puno until I found one.”
Pedro lifted the llama fetus from the table and carefully turned it over in his hands, examining it. “So it is,” he whispered. “Perfectly white.”
“You won’t find a blemish on it. Can we go tonight?”
“It’s a matter of some urgency,” Alejandro said. “The mercury readings may have dipped, but we have reason to believe the mine is still growing. Men keep coming to the clinic, more than ever before.”
“I’ve tried everything else,” Alejandro said. “Please.”
“I’ll gather my things. We’ll leave in fifteen minutes.”
It was night in the mining camp and the sluices and smelters were idle and dark. Thunder echoed gently in the jungle night. A steady rain fell, thumping loudly on the corrugated steel roofs of the darkened huts. A sharp flash of lightning lit up the camp for a moment and then darkness took over again.
In the dead hours of the night before the dawn, a small figure, more shadow than flesh, walked stealthily into the hut. Unnoticed by the men, it approached the makeshift shrine in the corner. A shaking hand—sinewy and dried out—reached toward the flames and grabbed the limes and coca leaves left as offerings. The ghastly hand, trembling, tucked the items into a K’eperina slung around her shoulder.
Qantuta walked over to a cot where a workman slept. She studied him in the darkness. Even in the low light, she knew he was Aymara. She could tell by the line of his nose, the setting of his cheekbones and eyes. She wondered if he had been brought to work on the mine against his will by some new Sapa Inca who had overthrown the old one. Just like she had been brought to Llullaillaco to be sacrificed. To please the Sapa Inca and show his gods how mighty he was. Perhaps it was less grand than that. Maybe he was part of a mit’ma labor levy for the New Men who had defiled the Qorikancha?
A wave of fatigue passed over her. She felt light-headed and stumbled to one side. She steadied herself against a beam that held up the roof. The poison she had absorbed in the pool was getting worse.
She looked around the hut. Other men were sleeping in hammocks. She walked quietly up to each one, barely breathing and studied their faces. Some were Aymara, some Quechua. Some looked like the feather-hunters from the forest tribes she had seen when she went to Cuzco. Others looked like the strange, New Men with light skin and beards she had seen in Cuzco. Still others had different faces, unlike men she had ever seen before. Who knew how far the New Men had gone? How far the new Sapa Inca’s empire stretched? Perhaps it was even beyond the Western Sea? They must have spread over all the earth, she thought, forcing strange new tribes into mit’ma service.
She turned from the sleeping men and walked slowly and deliberately to the hut’s entrance. Looking across the muddy field in the center of the camp, she saw a building like the ones in Cuzco with straight walls and a roof of steel. One of the torches without flame illuminated the main entrance to the building. She knew if the mine had a chief, he would be there.
Qantuta flung the twisted, ruined metal lock to the ground and pushed back the iron door. She stepped into the darkness, her sandals falling softly on the brick floor.
Qantuta walked down a corridor, bracing herself against the wall as the world swayed from side to side. She turned around a corner and looked through an open doorway. In the middle of the room, a man slept on a raised platform, with only a light sheet covering him. He was all alone without servants or wives nearby, but she knew he must be the chief. Why, unlike the other men, was he locked away like some treasure?
She walked toward him. Halfway to the bed, she stumbled and caught herself. She looked down at the man, but he did not stir. Carefully, she stepped forward again. Near the edge of the bed, her foot hit something on the floor, making a slight noise. The man stirred and sat up in the darkness.
“Who’s there?” he said. “Claudia?”
She reached out with her shaking hands and clasped his leg under the sheet. The man cried out—more in surprise from the coldness of her grip than pain. He yanked his leg out of her grip and she lunged at him. He rolled on his side and raised his hand to strike her, but she reached out and caught his hand in the darkness. He felt the icy hand shake violently as it grasped his wrist.
He reached back with his free hand, reaching toward the head of the bed. She flung herself on top of him, pinning him to the bed and grasping his free hand by the wrist. She brought his hands above his head, pressing them into the bed with superhuman strength as he grunted and writhed under her.
She began to chant in Aymara and closed her eyes. She quickly let go of his hands and grasped his neck tightly. He struck and hit her with his free hands, but the blows glanced off her. He started to claw at her face. He felt the flesh give away in shreds in his hands, but no blood flowed from her wounds.
He tried to scream for help, but only a strained gurgling came from his throat. The only reply was the rhythmical chant of her prayer. Her grip became tighter, his eyes grew wide and his arms began to flail uncontrollably. He felt the skin on his neck under her hands grow colder and colder and begin to sting and burn. He kicked his legs violently and arched his back. His struggle continued for a few moments. There was one, last violent twitch and he sighed profoundly. His body grew still.
She opened her eyes and stopped her prayer. The room around her no longer seemed to move. The man was silent, but still warm lying under her. She removed her hands from his neck.
She held up her left hand in the semidarkness and looked at it. It was still.
“Where is he?” Dr. Rodriquez asked.
“Inside, Señora,” the foreman answered with a sheepish bow.
Dr. Katharina and Alejandro walked up the simple wooden stairs and stepped inside the building. At the end of the corridor was a simple, small room with a bed at its center. A lone light bulb gave the room a sickly, yellow pallor. The room was close and hot. The foreman who had led them in stood behind them, looking on.
The naked man lay on his side in a fetal position. At the foot of the bed was a red-and-orange woven rug. In the middle of the rug was a small silver llama carved in the pre-Columbian style.
Dr. Katharina kneeled next to the man and grabbed his wrist, feeling for a pulse.
“Is the boss dead?” the foreman asked.
“No,” she answered.
Alejandro saw the man’s chest rise and fall slightly. His right arm twitched and the man’s entire body shook for a moment and froze again. His hands curled in on themselves like claws.
“Can you hear me?” Katharina asked.
The man shivered, but there was no outward sign that he had heard her.
“Mercury poisoning, I would bet my life on it,” she said. “A severe case.”
“We’ll have to take him back to the clinic,” she said, standing and turning to the man. “Can your men help? There’s a stretcher in the ambulance.”
“Yes,” the foreman said.
He walked out and they could hear muffled shouts.
A few moments later, the foreman and four workers came into the room, carrying a stretcher. They walked over to the man on the bed and grabbed his arms and legs, trying to pull him straight.
“No, stop!” Dr. Rodriquez said. “Take him as he is. On his side.”
The men looked at the foreman.
“Just like she said,” he told them.
They put their hands under him and lifted him onto the stretcher, placing him on his side. The muscles in his arms, legs and face would twitch from time to time, but he showed no sign of consciousness. The men cursed quietly at one another as they maneuvered the stretcher through the doorway and down the corridor. They carried him through the narrow door and out into the tropical sun.
Outside, around the bottom of the steps, the men of the camp had gathered. The mine workers stood to either side of the stretcher as it passed, creating a column for it to pass through. They looked on in silence at the figure on the stretcher.
When the stretcher was about halfway to the waiting ambulance, two of the men in the crowd whispered to one another softly. The whisper passed from man to man until one could just hear it above the eternal buzzing of the jungle. It was unmistakable.
It was said in a conspiratorial, low tone, but there was no mistaking it. Alejandro and Katharina heard it as they walked behind the men carrying the stretcher.
“Pacha-mama,” one man said loudly above the rest.
The whispers stopped.
“She has done this. Her day has dawned,” the man continued.
The man crossed himself in the Catholic fashion and fell on his knees in the mud. The men carrying the stretcher trudged forward. A few men fell to their knees and crossed themselves, but the rest of the men stood without saying a word. Either because they did not believe or simply did not know what to do.
“Ave Maria,” the man began, a desperate strain creeping into his voice. “Llena eres de gracia…”
The men kneeling near him repeated the phrase.
“El Señor es contigo,” the man continued. Those kneeling around him repeated it again.
As they did, the men carrying the stretcher walked through the mud, sliding toward the ambulance. The man on the stretcher twitched slightly, his head jerking sharply to one side.
As they loaded him into the ambulance, the men of the camp reached the end of their prayer.
“Santa María, Madre de Dios,
Ruega por nosotros pecadores,
Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.”
The men kneeling in the mud crossed themselves a final time.
Dr. Rodriquez and Alejandro climbed into the ambulance on either side of the stretcher. The foreman slammed the ambulance doors shut and hit the back door twice.
The red brake lights went out and the wheels spun in the mud. The tires found traction and the ambulance began to head back to town.
“That was the last I saw of him,” Alejandro said. “Carried away by his own men.”
A wind blew off the lake, flying up the cliffs of the island and passing through the archway of the stone temple at the island’s summit. Alejandro and his father gazed at the setting sun.
“What became of him?” Pedro asked.
“He’s still at the clinic,” Alejandro said. “There are some treatments available, but his condition is grave.”
“And the mine?”
“It closed down. All the nearby villages have heard about what happened. The rumors have spread all the way downriver to the Brazilian border, they say. They’ll have a hard time finding anyone willing to work the mine again. I plan to go back every few months just to make sure it’s still abandoned.”
“What about the mercury in the river?”
“It’s still there, but it’s trace amounts. But there are other illegal mines and other rivers. As soon as one site closes, another one opens up somewhere deeper in the jungle.”
“So what now?”
“We look for the next one.” Alejandro paused. “I have something for you.”
Alejandro unzipped his backpack and pulled out a narrow orange and red carpet. “This was placed at the victim’s feet,” he said. “Somehow, I thought you should have it.”
Pedro turned the carpet over, examining it carefully. “It’s odd.”
“It’s a very old style Aymara. The dyes are natural. Whoever made it didn’t use chemical dye. And the pattern. It is Aymara, but not from here. Not Titicaca. It comes from further south.” Pedro lifted his hand and motioned across the lake, indicating a great distance.
“Whoever did this,” Alejandro said, “placed it at his feet and left this.” He handed his father a silver llama figurine.
“Old style too,” Pedro answered. “But from where, I can’t tell. It could be Inca.”
“Maybe it meant something to the one who left it?” Alejandro asked.
“Perhaps. In the ancient days before digging a mine, the priest and the community would gather and perform a sacrifice to ask Pacha-mama permission to cut into her flesh. Maybe instead of sacrificing a living llama, whoever did this left the figurine instead.”
Pedro let the figure fall to his lap.
“Come on, old man,” Alejandro said, reaching into his backpack and pulling out coca leaves, chicha, limes and tobacco. “We have our own sacrifice today. This time, to give thanks. Let us begin.”
The dimmest stars had started to fade, but hundreds still spilled across the sky of the high Andes. Toward the east, the dark dome of night had turned midnight blue.
Looking down from the peak of Llullaillaco, a small dot could be seen. The dot climbed the path below slowly and, as it went, grew larger. It grew legs and arms, and as it came closer, a black and red hat sprouted from its top—the only color in a dusty, brown world.
As she trudged up the path, Qantuta wove a small pouch, her spindle clacking as it struck the stones of the ceque line leading to the summit. She slowly chewed coca leaves tucked between her molars and cheek. And why shouldn’t she, after all? The Sapa Inca’s empire had fallen down to dust. Coca belonged to the people now—all the people—not just the haughty nobles of Cuzco.
She paused and looked up, her hands still turning upon themselves as she wove. It wasn’t far now. She pulled her hat down tightly and continued up the path.
She turned up a bend that exited on a ridge just below the summit. She paused to face the east and watch as the eastern sky changed from midnight blue to pale light blue. The last of the stars began to fade and only the Morning Star remained in the sky when she finished weaving the small pouch.
She put the spindle away in the K’eperina across her shoulders. At the summit, she turned to her brother, who sat motionless, just as she had left him.
“The Sapa Inca is no more,” she said. “For his avarice and evil deeds, Viracocha has overthrown him. The Qorikancha has been stripped and the gods and kings it housed have fled. Strange men from afar have laid the Sapa Inca low. I do not know where they have come from or how far their empire stretches, but it must be to a great extent.”
She paused, waiting for her brother to respond. He did not speak, not in his living voice. So, she continued.
“As for me, I have completed my mission. The call that awoke me here led me to wander. I found the heart of the puma and there the moon spoke to me. It ordered me down into the jungle to find a mine, a place the New Men had cut into the earth. Arriving there, I sensed they had done so without the proper sacrifice and due consent. And suddenly, I understood why I had been called there.”
She held up the pouch she had just finished making. “I brought this for you,” she said, “as a reminder that this was not a dream journey, no illusion. But a real journey to the furthest limits of Tawantinsuyu.”
She loosened the pouch and showed him the inside. “See?” she said. “Limes and coca. Could I have found that in the mountains? Or could a spirit or sorceress have conjured them in all their living glory? No. I brought them for you from the edges of the empire.”
She smiled and placed the pouch at the head of the little procession of silver figurines on the mat in front of him.
“I am tired,” she said. “I have journeyed far. It is my time to rest.”
She walked over to her mat and sat down, crossing her legs.
She began to rock back and forth slowly, chanting a spell she had been taught as a little girl before the men had come to take her to the holy mountain to be sacrificed with her brother. She asked Pacha-mama to give her centuries of rest before calling her again. She rocked more slowly with each sway until she felt herself become motionless, one hand clasped over another.
She felt her body grow stiff and her mind slow. She bowed her head.
Her mind echoed from within, saying, “I go to rest. I return to the vast house of sleep with many rooms. I dream of men and mountains. I listen and wait.”
Before darkness overcame her, she saw an image. It was her own brown ear, shot through with an ingot of pure gold with a wisp of black, braided hair falling over it. She saw it suspended in a dark space without anything near. Then, silence began to fall like a fine mountain snow. The image dissolved into nothing and darkness spread its veil over her mind.
On the silent peak, Qantuta fell back to sleep.
# # #
Pushcart Prize nominated Abigail George is a South African-based blogger, essayist, poet and short story writer. Recipient of two grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, one from the Centre for the Book in Cape Town, and another from ECPACC in East London, she briefly studied film at the Newtown Film and Television School in Johannesburg.
Don’t waste your pain, kill your enemies with kindness
Just yesterday, today and tomorrow the images of death in her poetry will stay forever in this world, not only a world of death, but also a world of life, a world filled with public souls, personas, bulldozed codes, the stink of smoke, the of photographs of blood-clotting, confusion over whether to live or to die or to call for the doctor, to take the anti-depressants she was prescribed. Ann Quin the experimental writer who swam out into the waters of Brighton beach never to be seen again. Jane Kenyon struggled with depression too. Were they all unafraid? The sky rises, rises, rises. Sharp, burning and blue and bright and striking light in all corners of the world. It is like the discovery of faith all over again. A child’s faith. A child’s logic. ‘Don’t look. Don’t look.’ Said Joyce Carol Oates in a fine poem with simple words and mysterious, grim lines. Blood and ochre did chase the tigers away. They drained it from me. Here see my gorgeous wrists, I built bridges with my hands and realised that perhaps not every voyage in my life was a catastrophe. Childhood was hell. Adolescence more so as I grew more and more competitive, more and more confident, accomplished. After winter’s gorgeous ice, crucial moisture and a sweetheart of nothings seeped into me and my suffering that has always seemed perpetual in my inner child’s life I discovered Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus. There’s a slippery emptiness in both yet, yet also something crooked, fluid night work. You see it was then that I saw my real enemy’s face. Perhaps it had the likeness of my mother’s, my sister’s or all women for that matter. Plucked, moving forward, the interpretation of untranslated language, reading can be a secretive pastime, happenings remembered, happenings forgotten, sounds spied upon, people become monsters or birds, larks, Ted Hughes’s wrens, owls touching a living world filled with sleep, wind, syllables, vowels, consonants, gestures. Think of love as this. The imaginative before it is lost. The sea is within me. Ingrid’s sea is within me. Wherever her soul goes, and her spirit follows I go, I move, I make preparations for images. She is and always will be an iron rose. Men and women when they make love there is an intimacy there. What happens to the feminist, the misogynist, the narcissistic individual’s intuition? I think they all die excruciating deaths. If there is self-pity then there is self-pity only on one side. The sheets will smell. Almost as if something is tarnished. And then everything becomes dark. Perhaps even the image of silence. It will become shrivelled, broken although its existence will still remain eternal, otherworldly. The idea of silence will remain in the mind of the woman enclosed like a parcel tied with string. And throughout the night she will untie and tie the string again and again and again. She will think that there is some reality to this string, that it will give her courage if she feels deep pain that now she is ‘easy’ and she will never be loved again. She will feel as if she can never be mysterious to this man who is lying next to her again. She will feel as if a brightness has gone out of her. This impulse will not die in her. There is nothing savage about love but there can be about lovemaking. This is the domain of thorns, of roses, of Jean Rhys’s wild Sargasso Sea, splendid books, the jittery virgin who knows that there is no turning back now (she knows she must suffer bravely now, put on her bravest face, and that this night-time tension will soon pass as she must turn from girl into woman). And in the end there was no mother to embrace me, to read stories to me, to offer me advice about my poetry. There were no companions’ only sleeping tablets in a tumbler of water. There were only English teachers and the dream-catcher Salinger. I hate people. I really do. None of them are real, made of substance, a balance mechanism. Most adult men are alcoholics or addicts of some kind and their women and offspring follow in their footsteps. Most of their thoughts are unholy. They want and want from a material world who gives only to those who work hard and are committed. They write love poems to each other as if they understand what the meaning of that word is. Men are always resolved to drifting while women nurture. And if their children are disasters in the end they do not blame themselves. Somebody must be to blame but not them. Adults are pure. It’s impossible for them to do wrong in the eyes of their own children or the law or society. They blame society, the taking of barbiturates, their children’s friends, and teachers and that is why I will never understand humanity, I will never get to grips with the insensitivity, the brutality of man against man, crime and murder and rape.
And now I feel I have to write about myself in the third person. Abigail becomes imprisoned by ‘she’, and ‘her’. I felt I could finally identify with Bernice Rubens, Ann Quin, and Anna Kavan, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Bessie Head and Ingrid Jonker. I too had become the elected candidate now. Edison’s medicine. Lithium therapy. Cognitive therapy. Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors. Anti-depressants for intelligent people who were too imaginative, too intelligent for their own good. I lost my voice like so many of the ‘creatures’ at the hospital. What is this vagueness? It’s all coming back to me now and I don’t want it to. It’s going on a rampage inside my head. This room in this ward in this hospital is loathsome. I am loathsome. Every day a wave of psychology. It is like hitting my head against a brick wall, a chemistry textbook, the Periodic Table. She did not feel emancipated or liberated in any way. She felt that there was a seismic-scarcity of something. There were threads that were not communicating in any way, behaving as a catalyst all she felt was a vicious and menacing mentality towards everyone around her. The nurses, the doctors, the patients, and the flowers. Traumatic experiences that children have to undergo, shock, terror, intricate victimisation. Gangs still going on a rampage with sticks and knives, guns in the air. Shots ringing out like church bells ringing. Half-in-pain, half-vacant she will lie there the girl until the early hours of the morning tying and untying this string. The man who lies beside her his flesh is sated will probably give her some money in the morning, put her into a taxi, give her enough so she can buy herself a coffee or some breakfast in a restaurant. She will still be plunged into a pit of ice. Frozen, naked she will feel nothing but humiliation, as if she is a ‘loose girl’. She will blame him. He will blame her youth, her inexperience. There had been a flicker of acknowledgement between both of them when they had first met. And she hurried, and he hurried to their secret rendezvous. A hotel in the seedier part of town. They both rushed. The room was clean. The sheets were white spread out like wide moonlight. She nervous, hands writhing, in a panic was wondering what to do when she discovered that she had nothing to do really. She was not the one who was in control of the situation. She was mute, carrion and he was a bird, the vulture. Hurrying and peaceful, was what she thought of him before. Now she just felt suffocated, alone, lost, a stranger. And she remembered her appendix scar and her birthmarks and she no longer felt shimmering or glamorous. He looked different. He looked much older. And suddenly she was very frightened. She felt untouchable but knew that he was holding out his hand to her and there was no turning back now. So she decided that she would feign indifference. She could not speak. He didn’t say anything either. She could smell the alcohol on his breath still. He offered her a cigarette but she shook her head, said she didn’t smoke. And now in the moonlight she was the victim. This was not love. She could see now it would just be another traumatic experience that she would never find closure to. She could see her domineering mother’s eyes in his eyes. In a man’s eyes! Now wasn’t that strange. As if she was committing incest. Her face went all blank. It was as if her body was made out of glass. Precious glass or precious stone. Tiger’s eye. It had to be if she had to live through this. She detached herself from the lovemaking (which made her feel damaged, haunted, she felt banished from her body, guilty). There was no bond between them like there had never been a bond between ‘her’ and her mother. The world is a sad place filled with wrong people who think they are right all the time. There’re also people, interesting and peaceful people who do not know or understand how to communicate that perhaps they are not right all the time. Human beings are hunters. We are gatherers. We are nurturers. Stunned at our own vitality, and then the transition from youth to becoming elderly. What is magic really? Childbirth, a birth pang, and hallucinatory illusion, languishing with a book? Can you smell that? Its territory, borders without words to mark them. And when the suicidal illness left me so did the promiscuity. It left permanently. I did not find it strange that men did not look at me anymore with desire. It had just been an accidental offering, and an-experimental-passage-of-sorts. I watch her. I watch her. Tell my brother and sister to look out of the other car window. I think they are playing some game. I think that they think this is a game. They’re too young to understand. My mother is on a mission. She is looking for my father. She thinks he is having an affair. She confronts him in the parking lot. He says nothing. It is not as if he does not know where to look but I know that it is not true. Not papa. Not my father. She is screaming at him now. I don’t know whether people are looking now, looking at the two of them, at this scene being played out in front of their eyes or looking away. I destroy my childhood diary when we get home. I am a child. I am wounded now for life. I don’t know what to do. So this is what I do. I tear page by page out. I scratch out paragraphs. You don’t understand how much I loved this book, this journal, but I don’t understand yet how to express my feelings, my imagination. My father gave me this book. Every year he has given me a diary in January. ‘This is yours. This is your journal.’ And I smile up at him, and with this book in my hands I can write anything I want. Who do I believe? I am my father’s daughter. I look like him. I don’t look anything like her, my mother. I know she hates me. Perhaps they will separate. Perhaps they will get a divorce. They drive home in separate cars. I am numb, struck dumb. I say nothing. My mother is driving too fast. It is unlike her. Her dress is above her knees. Is this what love is? Human nature is human nature. ‘Daddy,’ I say later. ‘I don’t think she’s your soul mate. I don’t think you’re meant for each other.’ But he says nothing, he just winks. Sexual intercourse, that transaction, lovemaking for me was always dirty. I wanted to remain a virgin forever, pure. I wanted to be a nun. I knew I had to be punished from an early age, make sacrifices, always wear black, and kneel when I had to pray but I was not Catholic. But my mother put that idea straight out of my head. She told me that there were no nuns anymore and then I wanted to be a priest but everybody knows how corrupt church leaders are. I knew that I felt damaged, bereft, and lonely even as a child so I found comfort in books. Even when I grew older and watched films where girls would remove their articles of clothing watched by an aroused older man I would feel nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe it came from childhood. The orgasm in both the male and the female disgusted me. Maybe it stemmed from the fact that I hated my mother who I thought had been so wrong, so incompatible with my father (whatever had they spoken about when he wooed her I certainly do not know. He was cultured and educated, he had a degree and she could type thirty-five words a minute and she had a diploma) but I loved my father and worshipped him. And for all my life I have wanted a perfect love and not a physical love. All my life I have wanted to be protected from all of life’s storms, other women, younger women, girls, I wanted to be given a sanctuary to write and as an adult I would watch the flickering images of pornography silently screaming with laughter inside. So this is what men and women would do to conceive children, their bright angels, and heirs to thrones of addiction, substance abuse and domestic violence. There would be little or no dialogue. I would get either insanely jealous of their stupid voices even though I knew every little thing from the props to the bed was fake. Why couldn’t I do that? What was so wrong with me? After all they were merely actors acting, doing what they were told to do, posed, directed, and projecting. I was bored with it all and wondered where my head was. Of love and sex I knew absolutely nothing at all. It bored me but not the love story, not the loss, the reject or rejection, the lover male or female leaving. Little slut, little whore, those weren’t words that bored me, that bothered me. And as I grew up the girl in me died when my mother told me what happens in this house, what is said in this house stays in the house. I came of age very quickly. Abuse will do that to you. Abuse at the hands of your mother, aunts (her sisters, her sister-in-law) the Johannesburg people, bullies on the playground, arrogant male teachers, and your first boyfriend when you are away from home, ten years older than you. Did he force me to do things I did not want to do? It hurt. They say it always does the first time round. I wrote him letters but I was not in love with him. The image I had of my parents watching two naked girls swimming, kissing with tongue, feeling each other as they come out of the water, touching each other, touching each other up and down, caressing their arms, their bodies. They sunbathed nude. It was the first time I had seen breasts, the voluptuousness of a woman’s figure and full frontal nudity. And something inside of me, a little voice said that my future life as a daughter who loved both her mother and father and a future life as wife, lover and mother had not only been sabotaged but ultimately destroyed forever. I was just a child who should have been asleep in bed dreaming. Attempted suicide is done with both eyes shut. This is not my time. No tunnel of white light. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The confessional poets. Sylvia, Abigail the exhilarated crazies. Look at me. The South African horror story. A landscape made of bars at the window, psychiatrists, and psychologists. The nervous breakdown, bipolar, mental illness, crazy, insane, lunacy is not written on the body unless you tattoo it on your arm with a razor blade or cutting. You can be the perfect child but can your mother perfectly love you in a flawed world, in her flawed world. She did not want me with my effortless merits, my stage plays and rehearsals, my stories, oh no, she especially did not want to read my stories. ‘Leave it next to my bed.’ She said. ‘I’ll read it before I fall asleep.’ And I did but she had more important work to do. Shower, dress, make breakfasts, and go to work. ‘Oh, I’ll read it later.’ She said whenever I confronted her about it. She was doing even much more important work then. Watching her soap opera with her stockinged feet up on the sofa chair, her heels next to it with her eyes half-closed, dreamy, Hitler but without the moustache and the wall of tyranny. ‘Kiss me.’ She demanded from my asthmatic brother wearing his cowboy hat pulling his wagon around the family room. And I made endless cups of tea. And as I made each cup my heart would fill with hope that she would say, ‘My clever girl. You’re growing up so fast.’ But of course she never did. We were scavengers. We ate what we could find in the kitchen and if daddy wasn’t pensive he would go out and buy us something to eat for supper. My father would cry a lot and I would put my arm around his shoulder, barely reach it though and ask him, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ but that just made him cry harder and it was even more difficult to make him stop. I was always near the top of my class but there were issues, damages. They were always fighting. ‘Good night mummy. Sleep tight. Sweet dreams. I love you.’ No answer in return and it bounces off walls. I am turning thirty-five bordering on thirty-six. It will be my birthday in two months. Valium nearby (always close), Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke next to my bed, Poems by Sylvia Plath Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate. Childlike in an adult world. The only world in which I belong is media, that and the local Olympic-sized swimming pool. Clogged in a caged childhood continued, sentences slaughtered by laughter, coughing, a closeted collection of books (textbooks, poetry and short story anthologies, a string of J.M. Coetzee’s books line a shelf, The Childhood of Jesus the latest), blackness, traffic fills the inside of me that was always the exchange. I can only fall asleep with a handful of sleeping pills. I take long naps in the afternoon and wake up in near-darkness. Pills. Pills. Pills. Pax. Epilizine. Eltroxin. Melatonin. Zopiclone. Ativan. I have no inclination to go to Paris. Rilke hated it there but on the other hand Hemingway seemed to have taken to it like water off a duck’s back. Anyway I suffer from vertigo. Mostly people go to Paris because it is romantic. Isn’t the Eiffel tower romantic? You won’t get me up there. I am a hypochondriac and become anxious as hell when I am introduced to novel people and places. It terrifies me. What a laugh? Did she clap? Was she clapping? Is she proud of the fact that I am a storyteller and a poet, not a politician, not a politician’s wife or anybody’s wife for that matter and not the playwright or documentary filmmaker I wanted to be in high school? When she took her seat in the theatre was she proud, was she beaming from ear to ear like the Cheshire cat. Depression is boring. But I’m used to it now. Every six months I’m shipped off for a week or so to a hospital to recover from psychosis, hallucinations. What a trip for my ego? I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My sister never comes to visit. She doesn’t live here in this country, in this hellhole anymore. She lives in Johannesburg. My glory days are over. I’m afraid they’ve gone kaput just like all the men in my life. The only thing that’s ever stayed put is my stream-of-consciousness writing, my journaling and my armchair travelling and the people that I love the most in the world dying on me when I least expect it and leaving me alone to now dance with the brave, swim with the fishes, eat slippery sardines on toast that taste like salt and light. The rooms are airy in the house. I have to remember to breathe in when I come home from the hospital. There’s not much they can do for me there but wait for the hallucinations, the psychosis to pass but the insomnia stays with me, winter’s bone to carry me home. I’m a claustrophobe in the occupational room. They leave me alone to make collages out of colourful magazines. What big eyes the pictures have if I look closely enough, long and hard enough. A hazard to myself, a danger to myself and to others. During the day everything feels cool to the touch, spacey and clairvoyant. I’m seeing things. I’m hearing things. Voices. Dead people. Spirits. Spirits need homes too. They need to be accommodated. Spaces, shapes, anything metallic, corners and angles. Please don’t bring me flowers to brighten up the space next to my bed. I’m dying but then again I’m not dying. I’m living. Such is life. I’m cold but then again these days I always feel the cold. Sylvia is coming through. She has been deeply unhappy and afraid for such a long time. Her time is running out. I feel just like humanity, everyone else even spirits need to talk things out you know. Sylvia Plath said it best in her own words as I have written it down here word for guided word. We live in a world where when you’re regarded as extraordinarily gifted you have to be extraordinarily brave too. So when people hurt us our first instinct is to feel as if we have incredibly screwed up, but you know what pain is just pain and we have plenty to gain from it. We have to face up to the gigantic and staggering proportions of brutality on this earth-plane some time. We have to tell ourselves boy, this is going to take some time to get used to. And maybe, just maybe the world is trying to sell our soul something, stir things up in our consciousness or tell us that our spirit needs an adjustment. No one was there. I waited and waited and waited. You know I thought someone would just turn up, show up out of the blue. Maybe Ted would have come with flowers. Maybe he would have said he was sorry. I would have said I was sorry. I was just a fragile wreck. Maybe I should blame it on my gender. Females tend to get emotional, fly off the handle you know, go kaput but that evening I just got so flustered and moody. I was filled with despair and a feeling of hopelessness. I wasn’t thinking straight and maybe if someone had been there, a friend, a terrific friend, and an angel I wouldn’t have taken my own life. I would have outlived Ted. I’m sorry. What a mess I’ve made? I saw you Assia. Ted’s little wife. His brilliant housekeeper. Stop touching my things. Stop moving them around. Ghost house. Who is the ghost? Sylvia. Sylvia Plath. Knock on my door. I cannot open it. My fingers are all thumbs. I guess that’s what happens when you become a ghost. You also cannot scream. You cannot screech. You cannot shriek because that would be very unladylike. You need a string of pearls, gloves and soft white stockings for that. I caught Assia wearing my pearls one day. I pouted the whole day in that house walking into walls, through them as if they didn’t exist, as if they weren’t there at all. Did Ted care? He was too busy making love to Assia. I could hear them. Their pillow talk, their radiant glow if glows could be heard, how sensual her excitement was to him. To all the women in the world who have survived the ups and the downs, the lows and the highs you are going to do bad things to children. You are going to forget them, to hug them, to feed them (the word nutritious won’t belong in your head or diary), that they even exist when they are standing with baffled looks on their faces in front of you and theatre tickets won’t make up for a lost childhood, a lost mother. You are going to forget say that you love them, you are going to forget to make that birthday cake and buy one instead that tastes like yesterday’s newspaper, you are going to buy fish and chips instead of slaving over the heat in the kitchen, over pots and pans, you’re going to make mistakes and live a life of regret and they will grow up and become adults who will resent you for it and perhaps stay bitter about it for the rest of their lives. You are going to want to be a sex machine and play the femme fatale for all the days of your life. And you will wonder who is this mummy, and that who is this mother-figure that they’ve meant you out to be. And home will never be the same again. Home will never be a safe place for your children. I can see the tunnel of light now and the dominions of angels standing guard. I can no longer stand guard over adult children. One depressive, one dead. Just my luck I suppose. Ted and I should never have rowed in the first place. I sent him straight into the waiting arms of Assia Wevill. Women are infinitely crueller than men. Men want women to be sex machines all the time and then when children enter the picture what happens then. Domesticity? The bliss of family life with chickens, a tiny place in the corner of the world to call your own? What terrible mistakes I’ve made. I should have stayed in America. America was my home. I was an American girl. I’m so far away now from everyone and everything that I’ve ever loved since I was a girl. Perhaps Otto will understand me now. Like father, like daughter. A daughter following in her father’s footsteps. Wake me up from this nightmare, from this terrible dream of my own doing. My perfect, perfect love W. I am Lady Macbeth. I am Lady Lazarus. Peel the bright stars off the dead scar of a sky. Wake me up. Wake me up. Wake me up ever so gently. I feel so numb as if I can never feel anything ever again in the wide, open spaces of this world. It feels very nerve-wracking to me. I never wanted to go like this. It’s all been a terrible mistake you see. It’s just that I’ve been feeling so grim lately and it just came upon out of the blue but I have this plan. I’ll go to the beach. The beach is the perfect place to dismantle depression. I’ll go swimming in the warm ocean water. He’ll come back to me because he loves me. He can’t love her. No, he can’t. She’s terrible. She’ll be a terrible housekeeper, touching my things and not being able to keep her hands off them. I’d love to see her put an apron on and show off her cooking skills in the kitchen. She can’t even peel potatoes so how can she cook. Tell me that. How can she run the household? She knows nothing about children. Teach them German! That damned Nazi language. That damned Jewess. Warren was planning on coming. He was planning on coming to help me with the children. God, what have I done, what have I done. Forgive me. I’m counting on his silence. A cheat is a cheat is a cheat. I was honest and good. Wasn’t I honest and good or did I too play a role in his philandering? And the children? I had beautiful children. He got to love them, raise them, watch them play, watch them grow up and I didn’t. My shoes, my dress, was I even thinking of what I was wearing that evening. I remember I was wearing my white shoes, very ladylike and such and I stuck my head as far as I possibly could into the oven. I wanted to do it right you see. No turning back from there. If only I could turn the clock back and hold my fat, healthy babies again, be young again, be twenty-three and not have let him kiss me on the neck. And not let it have been a whirlwind romance. Where was the wooing, the seduction and I had hated Spain so much. He took me there on our honeymoon. He took Assia Wevill there too, his lover, my rival, the woman he left me and his young family for. And what did it matter in the end. He still won prizes, loads of them, had lady friends and young girls fawning over him, and he even got married again. Lucky strike. Handsome is as handsome does. He found love again. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. I’m dead aren’t I? I’m deader than dead. I’m a real nobody now. No good to anyone but they say lovely things about my poetry, about my Ariel, nothing about my sonnet that I won some prize money for, or my short stories or my second novel. I burned that. Now that was bliss. When he left me and the children alone while he was gallivanting around London with Assia I just found that I had so much time on my hands so I literally made bonfires in the yard and burned a life half-lived on truth, lies and deception. Letters, verses, correspondence, papers, anything that was important to the famous Ted Hughes. Famous in life, even more famous in death. This time I’m not coming back for real am I. I’m not going to be found alive three days later. The ghost house, that’s what his Assia called my house. They didn’t even move my body yet but I knew she was there. I could see her. She was always touching my things, moving my things around but I knew she was done for when she had the abortion. I knew then that he would never marry her. Perhaps I even knew this before he did. Oh, my words, my poetry, my Ariel and they have gained popularity over the years, they still have substance but then so again did my jealous streak, my nervous breakdown, my bipolar illness, my suicidal illness as it later turned out to be written about by female poets from a much younger generation. Say the words mental illness and you’re immediately sensationalised and stigmatised at the same time. Lucky, lucky me. Otto are you looking down at me? Are you waiting for me to cross over? Is it my time yet? Time to say my goodbyes to my beautiful Frieda? Oh I’ve been so unlucky in love. Goodbye cruel world but I say that only half in jest. You want me to wear a ball and chain. You want me to come with you hook, line and sinker. Well, I am not anchored to this world in any shape, way or form anymore. Who will save me from myself? Ted and his line of, his succession of mistresses. I have the features of a mannequin now. No, lipstick won’t do. How do you prepare yourself for the hereafter? Will the horses of the apocalypse come for me? I’ve have a rough, rough time Otto. Sorry I didn’t come and see you but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I needed country air that evening and rest not gas. When depression is beating on your door, don’t let that ghost in you hear me. Put your feet up, or get into bed, close your eyes and rest. Tell me how do I look? How do I look for death? Simply gorgeous, right? Simply gorgeous mess. I have to fix my face. I just have to fix my hair. I’m a mess. I’m a mess. I’m a mess. A spaced-out mess. Oh, Warren I didn’t mean for this to happen. You know me. Once I get an idea into my head. I’m so pale. I’m starving. I haven’t had anything to eat the whole day. But when death comes knocking at your door. Your time is up when your time is up. What a mess! And if there was only someone to hold me, to hold onto that evening. Could nobody tell anything was the matter, anything was wrong? Where were all my friends, my terrific, terrific friends? My partners-in-crime were nowhere to be found. Was all that I was good for was a cocktail at a book launch? My Frieda is beautiful (always has been) and that precarious act she had to balance on as a child, as an adolescent is finally no more. I guess this is my way of saying goodbye. There was a dream. I found a dream in Ted’s eyes and then the dream was no more because Assia Wevill awakened the dream in him once more. Daddy are you there? Otto, it is me your daughter, Sylvia. I am finally coming home. It’s time isn’t it? Time for me to move on, to move up skywards, cross over. Have I done bad things? Yes. So many prying eyes want to read my journals, my letters home, is my poetry not enough for them? There are papers read, exhibitions, enough said. I’m tired now. My arms are dead weight. This is what you wanted Ted. You wanted to be free. I am giving you your freedom but it comes with a price. Silence. I can’t wake up, sit up straight, talk. I must have taken something. What’s wrong with me? God, what’s wrong with me? I must be dead.
Everything is disjointed especially when they (the words) are first coming into being, in fragments, there’s no clarity to me the reader. Everything is a journey. Follow me they seem to say. Come with me. When disjointed fragments of the spirit become apparent so does the dysfunctionality and the moods in families. I’ve lived with it for all of my life. Alcoholism and addiction and finding myself in that sometimes-harmonic space of looseness, threads disconnecting and coming together again, the family going on holiday and reconciling and then going their separate ways again afterwards. It became ritualistic. Sunday and chicken, Easter and pickled fish, tumbling head first into Christmas and the feast that waited for us on the dining room table after church. When you’re a child and everything, every corner that you turn seems to torment you, what do you do when you crave an intimate world? When people in your childhood world aren’t kind, aren’t loyal, aren’t normal, live without love and teach you to live without love too and so you begin to live in books. You love the beach, hate having your picture taken because you have to smile and it is just so hard to smile from your perspective. You begin to love Jean Rhys, slowly fall in love with her and Mrs Rochester, their madness becomes your madness, you becoming, you becoming without knowing, without thinking it, it just happens by chance, a mad dance. You begin to feel shame, humiliation, selfish, self-absorbed, arrogant, wilful, and you tell yourself that you need love to exist and you watch the world around you, how it isolated you, your strangeness, one-who-flew-the-cuckoo’s-nest type of stuff in your head. You see couples. You see families. You see love and you don’t see love. You are not the chosen one. You are not the winner. I am not the chosen one. I am not the winner and you convince yourself that love is just a thing, a possession for others to have and to hold onto. It is not the hardest feeling in the world to think that way. Becoming, becoming, becoming. I am fading away amongst the pillars of our community. Why is it so hard to live? What happened to me as a child?
‘What are they doing? Don’t be shy. Tell me.’ A teacher asks me and I almost feel like crying, feeling humiliated, as if I was slapped very hard in the face all of fourteen. He has stripped me of the pureness I still had, destroyed my virtue and dignity. And he smiles. He knows he has the upper hand. What else can he do but play this game, his game, an adult game? His wife is in the kitchen preparing supper. Doing what so many women of her generation do in the evenings after work (my mother was not a woman of her generation). His children are outside on the lawn playing. I can see them from where I am sitting. I can’t escape. It is the first time I see physically the sex impulse in the man. There is nothing I can do but wait for his interest to wane and for my mother to rescue me from my extra-lesson. They are photographs. Photographs of animals.
‘Nothing.’ I say. ‘Nothing I can see. I don’t know what they’re doing.’ I say firmly. He laughs at me as if I am a funny little girl, a strange creature, and silly.
‘If you say so. Don’t be so. Don’t be so serious. I was only playing, playing with you.’ He replies and takes his photographs back and puts it in a folder. Older. (In seduction there is only theory and identity. Who submits and who is the one who dominates the situation.) Every day I am so excited to see you, wonderful you and I wonder about the secrets of your heart Robert. Could they be as deep as mine, as deep as the river of blood flowing in veins? You enclose my mind but you are not free. But it is much like the secrecy of the deep, of my hometown’s darkening waters. Best left as images stitched together like the strategy of a quilt or patchwork. There’s something about the sky above you about you that I adore. I can’t take my eyes off you. But already I know I am sick, dying to belong in one sense in modern society and in another I am so far removed from reality, from normal and only you seem to be able to see this. Lovesick, I feel now that he was the only person who knew and understood me completely, that I was addicted to feeling in control and out of it mostly. Port Elizabeth. It feels so long ago as to how my childhood home revived me. They make me feel as tough as strings of beef. War has visited house by house during the riots. It tastes like a stale loaf that has been left out too long. A slice of hard, dry bread that you can crack between your fingers and leave your desire for longing for the light in my eyes. It feels as if it’s burning. Something on edge like ballet pointes. The frozen wasteland of the streets of Johannesburg. My brown nylon stockings are hung up to dry in the bathroom. The streets are a catapulted realm of newfound freedom exploding into stardom. Where and when does the external become important too and what becomes of all the rage, and all the sadness, take it all away from me, from my childhood? Is it Chatterley’s ghost – what is it that terrifies me so? Is it the cold comfort of the Scriptures? Do we live as we dream? ‘Take it all off he said. I want to watch you take it all off.’ I obeyed. The day I left you and not the other way round I put the disorder between us, the words that were said and could not be said into a box. How you dominated me, wounded me, what you made me feel with a glance, with one look, how you desired me and what you made me think when you ran your fingers up and down my spine asking me over and over, ‘Can you feel that? What does that make you feel?’ ‘It makes me feel calm, otherness.’ ‘Not happy. Don’t you feel happy child?’ ‘I feel as if there are boundaries between us.’ There are always boundaries between a man and a woman but you are too young to know that yet.’ ‘When you put your arms around me when I’m naked I feel epic.’ ‘Epic. Now that is a strange word for a child to use.’ ‘Isn’t that the word you use when you describe your books to your classes?’ ‘Yes, maybe.’ And I could feel him smile as he massaged my shoulders and kissed my neck. His arms feel like the handmaiden’s rope around my neck. There’s no place, no room for hysteria only violent phenomena in this bedroom. This is not my house. This is not my home. I don’t struggle. I just feel a release. It is sharp. He has introduced me to books and films, French films and pasta and wine, preserved figs, chai tea that I’ve become passionate about and J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. The Childhood of Jesus. The House Gun. I am so far away from my mother’s house, the house of a monster, her primitive hatred of me that ran like an electric current into my fingertips torturing me, and my cries that nobody heard. Her obsession, her mental abuse, no wife, no kindness had she for a mentally ill daughter. She was kind of a deranged person with her own emotional damages. One person to another and another funny kind of cruel person to me. I felt a violent despair for Robert. Could he see all of this in me? But the lover was something else. He made me cheese on toast. ‘So this is all a divorced father can make.’ He smiled. I smiled. And I remembered the mad, dark sea of Port Elizabeth, the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, the green feast of Swaziland and how far I had come to eating cheese on toast. Electric hurt is the price every poet must pay. I slept with a lot of men in Johannesburg. Older, wiser, more experienced, divorced, married, some had children, some had one and some were lonely like I was. I think they all had a traumatic loneliness like I had. To sleep with someone like me I guess you had to have one. I’ve thought of suicide. And I am sure everyone with a suicidal illness thinks of it at some point in their lives. I feel as if I have been part of the Otherness of the universe at large. They would say things to me although it would frustrate me sometimes stuff like, ‘It’s all part of Phenomena. Maintenance. You don’t have to worry about that. I will take care of you child.’ I didn’t want their money. I wanted love but they would smile at me when I spoke of it as if I was too young to know of such things, much too inexperienced but to me I knew a man had to offer me a window to that world or leave a door ajar. I had too much of a primitive instinct for love, and a hyperactive imagination. I wasted my youth and in Otherness I didn’t. When he entered me I thought I would experience hysteria, a flood of those traumatic experiences I had in childhood and adolescence would somehow be reawakened in me. It’s not that they would buy me beautiful things, a bracelet, a pretty relic, it was the things that they would say to me. Their intellect, their fierce intelligence, how they would make me laugh and when I telephoned them I could have a few minutes of their precious time listening to their brutally articulately voices at the other end. How they would make me blush. She is not mummy. She is mummy’s sister. She’s been away a long time. She’s gone to heaven. Reminding me that Sunday is a ghost of a day. And so is the chicken. All of my life I’ve worshipped cake with a ‘higher learning’, a ‘poetic justice’, eating bread, cinnamon rolls and pudding like it came with the light of the world. Gold is the owlish sun-god Ra. Port Elizabeth. Home. Home has given me burning driftwood wings. Up, up, up and then down, down, down like a moth inhaling smoke evaporating in air. The air tastes like fried fish, smells like calamari rings, frying chips in oil that’s weeks old in the café. A man is following me home. He is calling after me. I begin to pick up speed, walk faster, think it will be suicide to stop, to pause, to think. I turn around. I know this man. I sometimes give him dry bread and hot tea. Today I give him bread and hot tea again. His clothes are splattered with paint. Mummy paints the world dead leaving me a portrait of the female poet. Johannesburg. He is touching me. Warm breath upon my cheek. Chaste kiss upon chaste kiss. ‘I thought you couldn’t see me.’ ‘Don’t talk.’ He says with my hair in his mouth. ‘What shampoo do you use? It tastes like pineapple. Smells expensive.’ ‘It’s my perfume. You bought it for me remember.’ ‘It smells like pineapple. You put it on your hair. Now that makes me feel young. You think of me when you were doing that?’ ‘Its flowers.’ ‘Don’t talk.’ He begins to unbutton my blouse one button at a time, puts his hand down the front of my blouse. ‘Are you enjoying this?’ ‘Yes. Yes.’ I say half-heartedly. He pushes the hair off my neck and his hand lingers there. And all I can think about is my aunt. My dead aunt. The beautiful, elegant alcoholic with two daughters and four grandchildren and an abusive husband. A handsome abuser who had a porn star’s hairdo who would physically hurl her across rooms and bounce her head against walls for merciless psychopathic fun. I would think of America and of how studying there seemed even farther out of my reach now. My aunt has been away a long time now. Gone to heaven leaving me a leper with a stoned heart, with a mother who is ice and glass, brutal and aggressive, an untitled poem who has ancient motives like the eighteen gangs in the warfare climate of the northern areas in Port Elizabeth. My aunt made me want to live. There is no speaking of Christianity and of mummy’s bright faith as I feel his hand on my thigh, brushing my skin, stroking my bare stomach draining bravery out of my spirit, out of me and calling it promiscuity. And even then during the sexual impulse I would be making up stories. I would be in some parallel universe, dimensions away, not feeling my heart’s pain or sacrifice or hearing the particles of music, even a symphony in a pop song. I would see the winter stranger by the lake, monsters, the feast of Robert (the man I could not have), see my letters in my red box of memories, having courage and a love song in the wilderness, the believer’s spring essence. What a feeling it is to be loved, to kiss when you’re awake in this world, when you walk upon this earth. I was always waiting for this spell, this magic but it never came. Only men. Only the men and they would take and take and take and leave me disillusioned and sad and suffering from depression. Strange people. What strange people men are? They can bruise a girl and flee and feel nothing in the end.
‘You’re a bicentennial girl, you know that.’ A man once told me.
‘You use big words. I don’t understand them.’ I replied.
‘It means ‘birthday’. Birthday girl. Every day you spend with me is going to be your birthday.’ He answered.
Of course I didn’t believe him and I didn’t see him all that much. He moved in higher circles than I did. His wife was a socialite and an artist. In Johannesburg I found myself in the New World. The land of giants, of immortals, of vampires who came to life in a twilight world; a wonderland of synchronicity, stimulation, the anatomy of maladies and melancholia. These men would share with me the philosophies they had about life, talk to me about their children and their wives and girlfriends, the houses that they were building, how much money they were making. Sometimes I would smoke cigarettes with them even though I didn’t smoke. They had their own motives for befriending younger people and I had mine for befriending older men, drinking with them to forget an absent father, a father who had made me grow up too fast, a mother who had neglected me, abandoned me, made me neurotic, emotionally unstable, who forced me to go beyond reality and to imagine things that had no psychological framework. My mother did not keep me from children who were rough. She threw me to the wolves, left me there. I was a drowning visitor for all of my life. I was the one who had to push myself out of the nest. My mother and father were so distracted by their own melancholia they hardly noticed when I left for the streets of Johannesburg searching everywhere destination anywhere for a miracle, for a return to love, for a boyfriend, a brave desert cowboy, an arrogant urban cowboy. Promiscuity for me was so easy. An adult game. Strangers meeting strangers. I could kill like my mother could kill. Sometimes I would worry about the connection I would have with someone I would meet. He would brush my hair out of my face. We would go to a park, sit on the grass, take our shoes off, talk for hours, play chess or go to his room in Hillbrow. He would sell roses. I would do and think and act like my mother. I would brush him off the next time we would meet remembering everything about him, tell him to leave me alone. How he said, ‘You’re lovely.’ How could a girl ever forget that, when a man told her she was lovely? Home was hell. School was hell too. There was no motive for burning driftwood on the beach that night but the teenagers did it anyway and they sat and watched the flames burn on the night they matriculated and drank their father’s single malt whisky, cheap wine that came in boxes, alcohol and beers and made out with each other in parked cars. This was their spot and for one night in their lives they weren’t going to be responsible. I was at home. I was at home reading a book. Milan Kundera. I was trying to find my identity. I was trying to find myself, educate myself. My mother was slowly becoming addicted to over-the-counter pain medication and alcohol. She and my brother would drink vodka and beers together and I would watch silently as this scene would unfold in front of me every night, hating it as it haunted me into sleep. Sometimes I would worry what was going to become of me. I began to write. Mostly about a man’s desires. I could not give the impulse a name yet. My father began to watch them too. His neck, a turkey neck, nude flesh. The man who had given me everything as a child and who had later began to grow more and more remote as I had begun to grown older. I am writing. I am writing my kind-of-poetry. It is a late history of autumn poems. It reminds me of Ezra Pound’s Alba, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, crazy people, Gatsby’s kind-of-people, those loony tunes who weren’t at first glance emotionally secure, men and women who sabotaged themselves. The strange people. Men are strange people. How brutally articulate they are. Electric hurt, electric sacrifice is the price that every poet must pay especially poets who have a hyperactive imagination. Sometimes I would dream of that sea, a mad, dark sea, and a warm pilgrim, who had an obsession with the violent despair of a man who could never love her. It would feel as if I was being driven through with a stake made out of chiselled wood through my heart. I often felt a primitive and traumatic loneliness in a Johannesburg filled with up and down streets, cold alleyways, homosexuals standing on street corners in skinny jeans with cigarettes in their mouths coming out of the clubs in the early hours of the morning.
‘What do you eat?’ he asked me once (the lover). ‘You’re so skinny. I can feel your lovely bones. Ribs. Spine. Shoulder blades. Neck. Chin. Your features are Germanic. What do you live on? Bread and cheese and gin. So much tension in the beating of your heart, anger in your eyes, tears on your lashes and now there’s a forced smile I’ve been waiting all evening for.’ He said and there was almost a kind-of-joy in his voice.
‘I eat. I live. I survive just like anybody else.’ I answered. ‘I never said I needed you. Never said this was romantic love. I don’t need you to tell me that I’m beautiful.’
‘Child, why must you lie to yourself? I know for a fact how much you’ve already destroyed yourself. Look at me when I’m speaking to you. I don’t say these things to hurt you. God only knows how much you’ve been hurt by people before me and what kind of hell you’ve lived in before. I, I can only imagine. Listen to me. You don’t have to lie to me.’
‘Is it written on my face? Is it written on my body for the world to see that I have sabotaged myself again, again and again? I want to smoke now.’
‘What are you going to do when you’re not young anymore?’
‘I’ll be dead long before that.’
‘Why do you talk like that?’
‘You asked me that. What did you think I was going to answer with?’ And I blew the smoke in rings out of my mouth.
He kissed me hard then and I felt the world turn. I was a dream. He was a dream. He was love but he was not mine and for now I could feel unafraid, soft in his rough hands. I felt unashamed as he took my suffering, erased my madness, my sadness, innocence, and my childhood, the memory of a mother who did not love me, a father who did not speak to me anymore as I had grown more and more like a modern version of his wife.
‘Why do you call me that?’
‘Because you are a sweet girl.’
‘But it sounds as if you still see me as a child.’
‘You’re seventeen. You’re still a child. And you shouldn’t smoke. You’re too young.’
‘I need you. Why are you leaving me so soon? You taught me how to smoke amongst other things.’ He kissed the top of my head and pulled the sheet above my naked body.
‘This is just a journey that you’re on little one. I have a house filled with women. Daughters, a wife and a housekeeper, maids. You will have many journeys. How we came to meet, you will soon forget. You will seduce and be seduced. This is the way of life my princess.’
Muse named. Muse unnamed. No promises were often made. A mother was gone, returned to the wards of hell from whence she came. With no gift of a father’s protection as I entered the world’s cruel, dark and dangerous waters some days were good and others not. Promiscuity was just a part of the Luciferian culture, the underground and urban youth culture infiltrating dreams, yielding disorder in all of the seasons. It must be so you know for each generation becomes challenged in their own separate ways. Teenagers become rebellious especially when it comes to sexuality. Your eyes have such a clarity to them Robert. What are you like privately? Do you know what it feels like to be homesick for a country to call your own? I feel homesick. A loneliness, a frustration, a compulsion, all suicidal. Who seduces you? Does Jesus seduce you? A girl who thinks about things like that. How I wished with all my heart, my internal organs and the symmetries of my tissue that he loved me on that dark road. Nothing but that big swamp of a Johannesburg ahead of mute, over-exposed, observant me. No longer a steely-eyed child, no longer ablaze with youth. It is the same me. It is the same morning but always walking down a different street and leaving confessions behind, weathering grief. Nothing to hold onto on my own. You take my head in your hands, I can’t cope, and I turned away. Later I found myself naked under moonlight, an insomniac in a strange world, in an even stranger man’s world. The cell door opens for you but not for me. Rain exists for me but not for you lover striking a nerve in-a-kind-of-gulf. Rain like silver, rain like hurt and pain (a flood of it cometh) for me but not for you.
I am in the shower, skin soaked with fragrance and soap, soaked skin from him after I removed my black skirt, white shirt and heels. And I try not to think about the man who gave me my first physical hurt turned into emotional then turned into mental. He brushes my fingers against his bottom lip. ’Lovely. Palace of love. Lovely eyes, lovely tongue and lovely fingers.’
‘It is impossible to know me. You will never know me.’ He laughs and laughs and laughs.
‘You belong in Paris. You can become a writer there. You have such a wild imagination.’
‘Right now I just feel indifferent to everything you are telling me. I thought you didn’t have the time to read anything I wrote.’
‘I make the time for things that are important to me. You’re important to me. Can you lift your hysterical veil now for once and let us have an adult conversation?’
‘Am I more important to you than your wife and your dinners and your parties?’
‘For now, for this minute, these two hours, yes you are. You look breath-taking by the way.’
I have stepped out of the shower, rinsed my perfumed hair, and dressed myself in a white large hotel towel.
‘Do you want to eat something now?’
‘Always room service.’
‘I thought you preferred it that way.’
‘No I do.’
‘Why don’t you dress yourself in front of me? Everything about you is beautiful. You’re a gift, a gift from the universe to me.’
‘You know if this was still apartheid we would both be arrested.’ I took off the towel, flung it onto the floor and got into the bed naked. They all gave me such confidence and a bravado. I cannot see the future only the perspective of the present. It is like a house on fire melting humanity’s junk, J.M. Coetzee’s ‘skin and hair’ and magic fantastical plastic. I’ve walked the sunburnt miles, forgot what my name was, what the taste of my lipstick was on his lips, what it meant to trace my limbs with his, to sleep arm in arm, fingertips caught between fingers, my what he calls ‘my hysterical veil’. I need lovers, spirited male conversation (the educated, and the ancient the better) to resolve my history. Make it plain for me to see that I’ve moved on from a religious household where spirituality included daily prayers and meditation, Holy Communion with pieces of bread and grape juice. I needed bold men in my life like I needed air. Robert, you are that most rare thing, angelic dreamer. So you supplied me with inspiration. So you cut me in deep, imaginative and raw ways. A cut from your blade was a project. Thinking of you, staring at you, looking at you, your progress illuminated the world around me. Everything was brighter. I regained my strength. I had a childhood love for you. It was lost on the pages of my journal. Lost always lost. You laugh and say nothing and it hurts. The bright heights of it. Lying on my back I’ve been draped with a blackening world’s information. When evening comes it is even more poetic than the previous day’s evening. And when I spy the afternoon sun, that great yellow balloon, I am a woman found who dares not speak of the insanity found in her family and whose shell of pain is wet and bitter. I have lived in chosen exile. On the surface prayer is like a vision, cold is a delight, the silver lining that passes by, salt and air meeting on the wind. In poverty there is always decay, the song of a choirgirl, crystals of light, a graffiti of them. I trace them on my arm, the windows and my palms. What he, the lover does not know won’t kill him like it kills me? I am slowly destroying myself. I have nowhere to go but down, down, down and there is no one to rescue me, to pull me out from under the dark towards the light. His roses looked like cabbages. Red cabbages, a red song for the mad girl, a flower for my bleeding heart. The boy I used to play chess with in the park, sit on the grass barefoot, walk to the library with. He doesn’t have a name. His face doesn’t exist in my memory anymore. He has become a dark line, a dark fantasy although I can still hear his voice but it is from far away. All these affairs of the heart has made me feel strangely creative. They slide through me, teach me, whisper to me in the dark. I hate the dark. I need the light to burn bright even in the middle of the night. I pull sheets over mirrors. And I imagine the lover whose dark hair smelled of rain. The rain of a child’s world. This is my sky, my grass, my rage (I view the world as an Outsider). Girls are drinking beers in fancy restaurants trying to make conversation. Crystals of light evaporate in winter rain outside my window. Sexuality is really not of the flesh although most people think it is. It is of the mind. It is of the ego. It is intellectual. When is childhood ever at an end? This planet is unstable. I am unstable. I was tangled in an obsession for being a ghostly not of the flesh sexual object. I thought that that would open doors for me to humanity for humanity’s sake. I thought I would be able to hear the chords of the earth’s harmony. It kills me to say this. Madness can be as magnificent as euphoria. If only my childhood was different. Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath. Robert Lowell. Confessional poetry down a brick lane. Confessional poetry for a coquettish girl. How beautiful and extraordinary those words seem to me now and forever more. When is childhood ever at an end for a writer, years of history and the educating of a young girl’s mind? I saw pictures of a formidable brick wall seeming to close in on me in those affairs of the heart and the mind. Disjointed, evaporated fragments of the spirit. And every one becoming more and more apparent to me as the long days and the longer nights went by of my late adolescence and early twenties. Everything is disjointed, in fragments, there’s no clarity in what I have written down to me the reader. Everything is a journey. I’ve had enough of feeling this wretched way. Enough of the dead of a creamy-white hot summer season, a season of fruits challenging me to think and to escape into a voyage in the dark, a sheltered experience, the blue-eyed wonder of the sky, stars falling down, stars in my lover’s eyes pleading with me with a clean perception during the midnight hour, scrutinising me openly with likeminded possibilities like clouds gathering across the sky. Everything in life is a journey. One must walk the path of inexperience to get to modernity, influence, perception and wisdom. I think a writer, writers like Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Keats, Orson Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a poet like Emily Dickinson knew this. Two Muslim girls are standing outside my office window smoking as if their lives depended on it. I hated the taste and smell of cigarettes when I lived in my hometown before I left for Johannesburg. I don’t know where the children get the impulse to smoke from these days. At this moment I am concentrating on improving myself. Having a set routine, sleep hygiene, working on not having sleep deprivation, writing in my journal. And I wonder do they think of me, the men, as often as I think of them or do not think of them? The sexual impulse is sacred but I never saw this between a man and a woman, never grew up with it only with the realisation that the weight of sin matters. I couldn’t stand to be happy. When darkness falls upon the city I came undone under his fingertips. I didn’t know why I hated myself so. Why certain books changed my life? Why I could only surrender when a man touched me? Love comes with paradise, tears, the explanations, the words, the observations that comes with gravity, the love songs, and it will leave you wanting lying in the dark. There is no such thing as organic time or a clock. White meringue weddings are for girls, for orchids, for arum lilies, for tea light candles, delicate material like lace not for a wonder guts like me, a tough cookie. I will not appear the same in the photograph as I do in memory. What do children communicate when they laugh, when they smile? Is their world not filled with joy? Why not mine? The faded leaves of grass under school shoes, bubble-gum stuck under a school desk, reading Athol Fugard’s A Road to Mecca, remembering all of these childhood things brings something temporary to the surface. Not tension, not indifference, a feeling of love for being young and not being in an adult world yet. A feeling of being fearless, so motivated that I got the lead role of an archaeologist (or anthropologist, I forget) in a house play. I don’t know what courage means anymore. Can you see the fragments now? How disjointed the narrative is? But is it enough? Is it enough to want desire? Sometimes I think that is enough. The sexual transaction can be far removed from being ‘a moveable feast’. Dampness seeps into the lining of my coat as I enter the hotel in Johannesburg fifteen years ago with someone else this time. He does not put his hand in the small of my back. He does not offer to buy me a drink. He falls asleep almost immediately as his head hits the pillow. The relationship is over before I know it for sure. They don’t come back to me. Am I so forlorn? Is youth and wisdom wasted upon me? As a matter of fact they can all go to hell and burn there, get a nice golden brown tan with a fiery looking cough-syrupy-texture-like cocktail in one hand or Brazil or someplace exotic like Mauritius. Maybe they’re seeking much more high maintenance girls. I just wanted someone to understand me. It wasn’t so much the educating part of it that I wanted. Dead writers have taught me that the pinnacle of creative expression is to challenge conventional wisdom always. I’ve surrounded myself, invoking their spirit, reading and rereading lines of their work, succumbing to their world of madness. The world is not the same for women as it is for men. The role that women plays is still a diminished one in the equilibrium of space and time although there have been women who have been visionaries just as much as men have been. Women have taught by example, led by example just as much as men have but what these women have known is that wisdom comes later rather than sooner. Darkness falls and I feel an emptiness inside. I am alone and I’ve finally surrendered to it. I am more in love with love than being in love with someone. I am Eve taken from Adam’s rib. A daughter doing what her mother did and did not do. My Edward, my Ted Hughes comes to me in this world of all places that is meant for dead poets, and animals.
It is a world that is meant for humanity, and magical thought-foxes, otherworldly wrens and owls who before the North American genocide of the Native Americans, granted tribes shamanic wisdom, took their place upon a totem pole. It is a world made for ancestors and gold, minerals and modern society, a blue eye and the blues, justice and jazz, nature’s code, leaves anchored and not anchored to trees, to blades of grass, the wind’s song (a journey to the past, future living, soul retrieval, present survival). And then there is the rural countryside filled with patches of grass, the history of how to grow pomegranates, catch fish, the heritage of ruins, rain pouring down like a ritual taking its place in the hierarchy of the food chain, seasons that come upon us and pass, steps, leaps, stars, human stains, animal stains, blood, shark teeth, a school of fish, whales. This world is meant for sessions of personal injury, hurt, deep pain, smiling laughter, you calling your daughter darling, the grim existence, and the caged existence of the young poet. I am capable (every young poet is) even though the cigarette smoke’s vapour’s injury starts with a mocking signal. I am not lost. Bold Heaven is pulling at vital me. I am a Romantic as I become more and more curious and the objects around me transfix me. The Death of a relationship is in the air like horses in a race to the finish line, an aloe’s sap and tears, mirrors, your reflections, encounters with angels above and angels below on the earth’s alchemic plane as consciousness travels the globe, alongside the dimensions of spirit, the elements of soul. Edward is the music that has shaped my nutritious isolation, my night swimming, my eternal waiting, and my frantic, hysterical weeping. My night swimming comes with its own frequency and rhythm. My limbs take on a life of its own (so poetic, I am guarded against humanity, my imagination, inspiration, the Milky Way, the knowledge of other galaxies, the light of the shy laughter of a couple not far off from me swimming in the dark), suspended between the pull of gravity on earth’s plane and other parallel dimensions. The parallel dimension of my pure, virginal flesh and intricate blood, my dreams and goals, the gift of my personal space that most private area, an arena that so few have viewed. Daughters do not always become mothers. Mothers are not perfect. They have their flaws. Ordinary mothers. Extraordinary mothers. Put them in a box. Every goddess-mother. I see my mother’s brilliance pick a valuable and beautiful object up and suddenly I’m transported to the room in a mansion. And then shut Pandora’s Box. Plant a flag there. If only God could hand out a medal for every birth-pang. Every mother has had an Edward, pulled funny faces when she was a child, held a cloud of a helium-filled balloon in her fist by its string before it became a shred, dreamed of a childhood continued when she became a youth in her sleep, as she paged through fashion magazines reading her horoscope not knowing yet that her future was predestined, that she was predestined to be a sexual object on her wedding night, a friend and confidante when she was wooed by her future husband, that her eldest daughter would be a failure, her second a major success and her third child would be a Scout, a quiet, bookish, loner as a boy who suffered from asthma and a beautiful intellectual, funny and sweet, a deeply imaginative-thinker, oh-so-serious who would be charming and artistic, sensitive and understanding as he grew older, and that this introverted leader would be both spiritual and show humility when it was called for in political meetings, a man after Winston Churchill’s and Abraham Lincoln’s own heart. Betrayal is lethal. Plath a gone girl in young womanhood reaching dazzling heights like me. Live or die. Those were Anne Sexton’s words. Pure. Introspective. A haunting interpretation. Yet their craft and bittersweet verse still defies terrifying and manipulative electricity, attachment, movement. Clever girls. You were no women in black. I put my suicidal illness inside a jar like a butterfly and leave it there for the moment. I escape into the pages of my journal, those hard lines, the physical, emotional, and mental appetite beckoning. The creamy landscape changes every day in leaps from green. Once I was in pursuit of Edward, advancing upon him, closer to the flame in his psychological framework’s psyche, harvesting his cool gaze, that tower, that secret winter. His throne burns me, my guilt flares lap after lap in the Olympic-sized local swimming pool like diamonds in the sky marking the distance to the stairway to Heaven, the ladder to the Milky Way. Edward sits at my table, field mice in the kitchen, tails between their legs in the universal-solitary-shape of death after being wounded by the mousetrap, no survival guide for them, escape-route, seductive exit and their whiskers no longer move baffled by the world around them, there’s just an ode to the mute and I begin reading my letter from home that serves to improve the fragile, loved half-lie I’ve been living. Where, when did Pablo Neruda find the time to write twenty love poems and a song of despair? Edward is in my life again. I’m staring at his photograph. He comes to me as if in a dream sequence. The years have changed us. He is even more handsome than I remembered in my wishful-consciousness-thinking. I remember going back to the city’s elements. The watery-prophetic eyes of women and children, decay, dirt, spiritual poverty and that there’s nothing pretty or picturesque about the pain of the mind. It can be more acute than the pain of the body. Johannesburg is Hemingway’s Paris. A psychological construct made up of childhood dialogue, the female writer who speaks in code, the young women who would slip away in the early hours of the morning arm-in-arm with their dream man of the night after a nightclub closed. Johannesburg was a Freedom Land’s anchor, a feast where the abnormal became normal, running with scissors, poetry in my twenties, knives, guns in the air. Sacrifice is not effortless. Midnight is but a voyage into the goal of a dream. Laughter keeps me alive. I seem to have been born with this intuition. Edward the exceptional, the extraordinary, brilliant genius with his cigarettes, stale smoke and moustache. Boats have become arks. Girls quiet women. Here there are no ducks in the park in their own world of silence marking time with their song. My sister adores her reflection, her face is a lake, the face of a scholarship girl. I watch her swallow shiny things, flicker, go up in flames, rise towards truth in the flesh and the spirit, her celestial madness and I ask myself does she never feel fear or vulnerable, does she never meditate on the sun only on our silence. She was a pianist when she was younger, tap-tap-tapping the clouds of the keys. I can only survive with the memory of my Edward. I can no longer kill the sirens with their elegant-shapes. The sirens who slit their wrists, jump off bridges, leave the car running, and hang themselves. They’re becoming as rare as the rainforest, pilgrims. Perhaps they were too pure for this world, the heat of their sensitivity could not withstand dissolving in water, withstand a pilgrimage, listening to the noise in a glitter-ball-world, arrows of ballads flying through the air landing at their feet like dew, sounding like a symphony or Beethoven. Every dress, every heel, silk stockings, perfume is a gift but who will receive them? Daughters? Orphans? The Salvation Army? A fete’s jumble sale? Is it for a wedding, a baby’s christening? Beautiful women become ghosts of themselves like leaves. Weaving delicious spice sinking inside a pot, I concentrate on the bowl, open my mouth wide. A cardamom pod. A green bitter capsule floating, winking in warm milk, white rice and tapioca. I have no sister. She is as dead to me as I am most probably to her. This empty vessel has melted away into the distance. Pink is my favourite colour. The walls, the walls, the walls have eyes. I am walking on the beach. I sit down on the warm sand, there’s something loving about it, my physical body dissolves in it, my hands takes on the texture of the sand, my soft shoes in my hand. I have pebbles in my hand. Where have they come from? I don’t remember the history of all of this salt, and this light. I don’t need food only the marriage of bread and butter and piping-hot tea, wet masala that perfects a steaming curry with cinnamon sticks folded into it to take the warmness away. Loving, losing, living, laughter can be harsh sometimes, the brightness of sadness, illumined loneliness. I am a cup. Turn it over and you will discover it is empty of a spell. There is only the image of the cup that envelops my mind’s eye. I’m done with being distracted by ego and diaries. I’m done, I’m through with married men. No matter how distinguished they might seem to be on the surface. Stiffs, veterans, and the family man. I am not Edward’s wife. He is dead to me. Look how he decomposes. My cries brood, roost. Watch how the flowers glow on his grave, scorch my possessive grip. Watch how the petals fall, the foliage wilts, the grass grows like difficulties, a thin scar that still wounds, once this man was a pearl, wise beyond his years who taught me to invoke British Poet Laureates, Rilke, Goethe, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Wilde, Woolf, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates and Carol Ann Duffy. Edward has turned me into an invalid who takes naps in the heat of a post-apartheid African Renaissance South African afternoon. He is more than an illusion. He is a man dressed in black, in snakeskin cowboy boots, staring at me with snake eyes, covering me with a shroud, touching me with angelic hands, his voice an instrument pushing buttons, accomplishing everything that his mind has set out to do with a quiet, unwavering, bewildering intelligence. Old-fashioned seduction. The path of least resistance. I too am now an empty vessel, axed, amped, and well-established in observation. Edward’s wife is the poet Sylvia. On her wedding day she was the blushing bride who stroked the cream frill at her collarbone, starved herself because she was so nervous, oil on her hands, a veil to cover her virginal face from her groom. Sylvia wears gloves and silk stockings. Sylvia writes protest poetry. Sylvia is a defiant feminist. Her scent is in the air, fixed. She didn’t know yet she was in for a wild ride. A woman, a daughter and mother can’t cure everything. I knew his wife had merit. I knew she had her pans, her cooking pots, and her kitchen and that she slept like a perfumed queen in their house, in their bedroom and when daylight multiplied through the curtains she would pull them open, go downstairs, make tea, prepare breakfast. He was making love to her. He was making love to me. She was educated. She had been to Smith College and Cambridge. I knew his wife had love but I masked it with a million winters you see I just wasn’t up for it. I knew him through-and-through, inside and out. He was so pure. Like light in the sameness of a forest, or fluid in a glass or a child sucking on drops of butterscotch. Life is pure but his promises weren’t. It is easy to regard the olive branch as a symbol of peace but all I can see now is how shallow you’ve been, how precocious your Sylvia is. How much more articulate and brilliant she is than me. Alice Munro is coming through now. She is coming through with Doris Lessing. Others will think that there is something sinister about spirit guides, mediums and clairvoyants. I listen. All the time Sylvia, Sylvia, playing like a stuck record. She was no thief like I was ousted as. Sylvia is a woman ahead of her time. The door, and that gap between us, closure happens in the light. Who would have thought the living and the dead, the earth-plane and the spiritual-plane could connect, but such contrasts though are projected sanely and with clarity of vision and thought through a guide’s orbit. It is not me Emma who walks on the water, crossing it from river-sea to the burden and the anger of another river-sea. It is not Emma who is worth her weight in gold, sensual in a quiet way, who wrote about gender giftedly, who had wonder guts, a brutal country to call her own and wrote both with a lethal and pure spirit, boldly, brilliantly who silenced the war poets, old men, the living and the dead. It is Sylvia Plath’s wonderland and there is a depth that awaits me. Pink watermelon flush in each cheek. Why didn’t you love me mum? Are you aware of the storm you created, rain pouring down, my heart feels as if red lace is wrapped around a stone, a canvas, the painter’s sketchbook. There’s an odd fairy lightness in her body, my sister’s body. There is no connection between us. No longer any sibling rivalry. And so the image of the autumn chill is always on my mind. Leaves all set for death and their diverse origins, destination for a cool wilderness landscape that feels like a frozen North American lake. I remember the despair and hope in the eyes of young girls thinking they are wearing fashionable clothes. I remember the range of peace, the delicate flutter of the eyes of old women, the limbs now infirm, who long for the warm sea when they used to go swimming as young girls. I remember the love song in silence when I felt I could no longer escape him. How does he move in the lovesick world now? I am the ice woman, frozen to her core, wrecked. See the descriptions of the clowns at the circus. I am one of them now and forever. There was a sane life, an insane life, a reality, a past regret, a mistake that was made, a telephone call, an apology, laughter, past energies in a story and I was left to wonder how some people find love in this world. A love that is as ancient as rain, the apron in the kitchen amongst pots and pans, a feast-meal on the table on Sunday, daddy sitting on his throne. Childhood is lost on me, dead to adult me, past is past yet it still has such sweetness, its dissolve. And some nights it comes back, awful, familiar, all the gruesome stories with such clarity that I know it is not my imagination’s spell playing tricks on me. I want it to wash away all my sins destination anywhere instead it says, ‘Remember me. It doesn’t matter who you love, who you fall for, who and what you desire or drink (alcoholic), watch the men dissolve. They won’t come back.’ And when the awful becomes too close for comfort I take to my bed after drawing the curtains, leaving the windows open for cool air, closing the bedroom door and I will lay on the bed until I can feel notes on grief begin to vibrate within me, as if they have a quiet, harmonic society and how beautiful and sad their symphony sounds to me. It is a breathing lesson, a lesson on suffering, on living, on life. What is brutality here? It is nothing but a memory, an interruption, and becoming a mute daughter. The flick of a belt buckle, a stinging wet cloth held under a tap of cold water, mummy, mummy’s red hands, mummy’s gardening hands inside the chilled earth, hard laughter, harsh words, running to daddy, feet bare. He is shouting at mummy. I look at her for the first time now and I see that she is tired. Her hands hang limply at her sides now. She says nothing. My skin feels as if it is burning all over. Daddy I am burning. Daddy I am crying. I am pink all over, then red. My skin feels raw, itchy. It feels as if I am Joyce Carol Oates’s harvesting flesh. She says nothing. She simply turns around and walks away. What did I do? What did I do? Where is the key to that country? How strange is the marriage of the mind to harvesting? The mind means education, psychology, something must be taught and something must be understood. To harvest means to bring closure to a season. This is what family means. To eat in front of the television, to scream and scream and scream until you cannot scream anymore. Nobody will come to you, comfort you. And so I grew up, moved up, moved away from the world of a child and the games of the child and the adolescent and stopped believing that she lived a secret life. Perhaps mummy had a secret lover. She was beautiful in that way, easily bored in that way, did not find the same things that daddy found relevant and beautiful. They were from two different worlds. They were from two different cultures. She came from money and he didn’t. She came from Johannesburg and knew a specific way of life from there. My mother came with a Pandora’s Box, suitcases packed full of clothes from there when she arrived as a newlywed. My father came from Everywhere in Port Elizabeth. South End, Walmer, Fairview, North End, Korsten, a fisherman’s village called Port Elizabeth, Gubb’s Location, New Brighton, Zwide, Kwazakhele, Nelson Mandela Bay. Through the years those names became lodged in my memory as I studied his research wanting very much to hold onto it rather than send it to the archives at the University of the Western Cape (my father the political activist learning how to send messages using invisible ink), read his diaries from his London and European experience (I rediscovered him, his suicidal illness, and by this time I was enchanted by his depression, watched slides of the palaces he visited but I could never imagine myself there. It was enough for me to see Versailles as a tiny photograph held up against the light. He witnessed many great things, magnificent things of wonder. Daddy was wonderful in those days, a thinker, an intellectual, a teacher, a role model to me who brought me back to poetry. Because a fire was in my head like the studies of the Robert Muirhead poems I had begun to write, because a flash of winter was in my head like the chains of bitterness in a veteran photographer’s memory but there was also something unfinished inside of me, something had dissolved. Look for opportunities the guardian band of gold around the sun said and that became my mission’s. I began to imagine other people’s shackles of pain, their chains, their prison walls put up all around them, the spirit of fear, hurt and rejection within them, abandonment, and spiritual neglect, poverty and for some reason it felt like I was multiplying gravity. I got tired of people asking me to smile please, you’d be lovelier if you did. Did I have courage, that mute child in the photograph? I’ve suffered but what is suffering anyway when compared to others. I have a mental switch but what do others have? What are their coping mechanisms? The universe gives freely to me. I have refuge if I want it. I have a sanctuary if I want it. Hope is there. In the arrival of it there is always freedom. There is always revolution in the mind of the poet and quintessence in the poetry that comes from the mouth, the voice, the straightforward thinking of that kind of revolution. I’ve met someone else. He tells me everything. He isn’t afraid to tell me anything. And slowly the veil lifts my smile and becomes like a scar. My wounds are like stigmata. And I begin to see and hear everything again. Hope floats. There are angels everywhere yet I still feel incomplete like some kind of show off finding it tiresome to live normally like the people next door who weren’t embarrassed to get drunk in front of their children. I’m embarrassed by loneliness, despair and my bleak outlook on life. I know where you’ve been once upon a secret life. A secret life. Do insects have secret lives too and what is their best intention for all those years they live with secrets? Therein lies their survival. When my sister comes home she and my mother sit down together as if it was the most normal thing in the world and they drink. They drink cocktails. Pink syrupy liquids that seem to sparkle, sparkling wines, Peach schnapps’, vodka and orange juice cool as ice going down their throats. I prefer my secret life. As an adult my mother, mummy is no longer my morning star and my sister is still my dream stealer. They have become my life, guarding the car keys and the bottle of milk stout. I have to find my own projects. According to God’s plan he wants us, me to act accordingly, justly, with integrity, humility. He wants us to go forth into the new world knowing that He is always on our side now and forever more. We’re all born with a philosophy, not necessarily a Plan B so to speak, and we want to bring meaning to our own lives. I found a book once called Norah’s Secret Life and as I was reading it I discovered many things about this woman whose life I wouldn’t exactly call exciting or romantic. She had ‘romantic’ love affairs but they were doomed from the start. She was or wasn’t significant but her life seemed to become something symbolic as if I had to have an opportunistic use for it later on in life. She was unfortunately not the marrying kind but she had a wealth of spiritual knowledge unlike any other woman of her generation and sometimes in the love affairs she had she would think like a man when it came to the ‘transaction’. In the material world men dominated she knew she could never win. And so she became like the smiling faces of children amidst poverty. When she wanted to escape she did what all men did, she educated herself, she painted, and she received visitors, she wrote unfathomable poetry that was never self-pitying but stories that were in a way. And in one way, perhaps some ways she became the caretaker of so many women who lived in isolation of a society who would not accept them because they chose to live an unconventional life. At the end of one her love affairs Norah seems to be coping with her new life as best she can like the stars in the evening sky when the earth smells clean and as fresh and new as vanilla. She is bright. Her spirit feels bright. It feels too bright. Her conversation can be illuminating and clever. She wants to be entertained. She wants to be filled with joie de vivre. She also wants to be pursued. Doesn’t any woman want to be pursued? Men are extraordinary when they are in pursuit. They have a grand perspective. They’re regale you with stories. The world becomes magnificent when they’re in it with you on their arm and you’re going places. It doesn’t really matter that you’re part of his secret life. They’re still pretty impressive. They make you feel desired, beautiful, and the grief that you once felt or had so strongly in your life above anything else is no longer triumphant. You’re no longer flying-walking-singing-chanting solo. It is the year 2013, nearly two in the morning, December and another Christmas has come and gone and my brother is about to become a father. I can’t mock him anymore. And in the exquisite compass of the infinite internal struggle between suicide, wanting to fly, wanting to have that family, that plan coming together, the memory, the thought of Plath, Hughes, Bessie Head, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell I am still here. I am alive with an awakened spirit, with everything that I’ve put the sum parts of me through I have realised that I cannot turn back. I have to move on, move forward because I‘m the sun’s mistress and life after all is a mission. I don’t really see how my life could change after this, after all I’ve put it through. Two birds. Plath and Sexton. Once upon a time they were two birds on a mission too. Joy fills my lungs so does a surge for the realisation of humanity. Our survival. Our instinct. The little one’s name is Ethan. Ethan Ambrose. We’re all actors acting in a bit part there and a bit part here. My brother held this bright shining thing in his arms. Something that would be educated, instilled with his values, his parenting skills and I felt as if I was being torn apart by some primal, primitive animalistic force. And I knew that I would put the past Jean Rhys’s Mr Mackenzie’s (plural) behind me. I never had an ounce of ambition within me anyway. They had all come with the world’s territory. There it was. The undocumented love affair was really most of all inside my head however brilliant the man was and however bold his moves and brave I was to take him on. I knew something different now. I was more defiant like Norah was in her secret life because eventually she had found her way out. Nobody wants the ending of a book or film to be spoiled for them. Norah had found her way out and she was happy. As happy as could be. Women deserve to be happy. Men are altogether different. Lost boys everyone. They are always searching and I don’t think they ever grow up. Good things are born from painful experiences. Ropes, ropes and more ropes. I have had enough of them, the hangman’s noose and their knots with basic tension. I want a pretty city, with bright lights on the promenade as I walk into the sea, as I feel my hair against my skin, my feet bare, the night air so crisp and all I see is the clarity of my mission. The sun has her mistress and there is a man that lives on the moon. I am a drowning visitor. I sink further and further away and I finally grasp the shoreline. Here I am free. I have hours to think, I am no longer trapped by gender equality and who wants to trapped by equality, brutality, everything gruesome, obituaries, by hours, and things of childhood-making. Starving landscape after starving landscape, brittle like filament, a burst of thirst pulsating like a shiver, a thread of sweat, a breath, a river, shamanic wisdom, the normal who live next door, the other side of the mirror is buried under smoke, the incessant flap-flapping of the wings of moths, seasons draw wrinkles on my mother and father’s face. A green feast shoots up everywhere in the garden and everything seems young, fresh and new again. The rain has its own way of thinking and it is a way that humanity will never understand. It can be a beast. A serious beast with a serious intent who remembers their vowels in a coolly distracted way on a hot-cocktail-drinking day in apartheid South Africa while sunbathing next to a chlorine-blue swimming pool in the backyard. The earth on the other hand has a vision of her own. I see all of these things in the mansions of my imagination. Something is bright within me. I enter into a contract with them. I am lifted up, up and up. I am standing in a forest. I look up and what do I see. The blue jewel of the sky. God’s sky. God’s forest. I close my eyes, feel the sun against my skin, and imagine standing on the beach, a lone figure watching the waves and their never-ending spiritual love story (spellbinding ghost story) with the shoreline. I step forward feeling the burden, the will of the river-sea rises up to meet me. I no longer stand tall, my wounds are frozen, the physical, the deep pain is numbed and becomes a posture, the world turns upside down and I am being navigated towards something greater than myself, away from painful experiences of the past. The lasagne tastes good. It was made by a prophet, my mother. The prophetess. Once I was skin and bone but they didn’t call it anorexia nervosa in those days. In those days I had to ‘perk up’. In those days ‘I had to pull up my socks’, ‘put meat on my bones’. These days I think about my ancestors. I have ancestors. Everyone does. Everyone who lives on this side of the world. Dark skin, white skin, mixed race, different faith, rituals and the burning of incense that comes with them, doctrines stored away like a file of a case study in a psychiatric institution (mental hospital) they all tread on religion at some point in their lives. They have their own exact perspective. And when I dream I dream of the waterfall of the past when I was a girl. And everything that I see makes me feel wonderfully calm, as if I am made of substance. I remember when I first drank red wine (it came out of a box), when I first tasted, really tasted basil, felt as free as a bird with a broken wing, drank a soup made entirely out of noodles, fell in love with sushi (fish with no eyes in a blanket of sticky rice), a girl, a boy, the world, a married man who dominated me and the world around me. And so the world of my childhood-making, mummy and daddy evaporated. I still remember the man’s skin, his knowledge of the universe, his experience and influence, how his flesh became my flesh, how I could see him as a boy and it was the most beautiful feeling in the world. It made my heart sing. It made words dance maddeningly inside my head, on the page of a book and I could finally see past, present, future merging into one. I moved from one unpredictable, unusual affair, situation, and relationship to another and I grew up and became more fragile, that is my common sense and sensibilities and my ambitions grew into humility and humility grabbed with greed at the wuthering heights of my pride. The people that I knew once passed on. Nothing unusual about dying, moving to another city, moving forwards even if it is towards poverty, marriage, terminal illness, suicidal illness, mental illness, the icy grip of the panic of terror and anxiety. Time. I don’t believe in it and I never will. Time steals away your dreams, your soul, your spirit, your childhood. It closes in on you until you are forced to face your deepest fear. Death stands there in the gap from this world to the next. Eternity. It is not loved. It is not nurtured. It is not a paradise-in-waiting. When I meditate I go inside myself and see God. There is no longer a divide between the wards of hell and the divine paradise of heaven. One is a lake of burning fire, choking smoke and plumes of ash and the other one is locked and a saint stands before the gates leading into heaven. Death has always been there, looking down, or over my shoulder and with each step that I take Death follows me with a steady pace. I’ve never seen Death’s face but I have been frightened that when my time has come my work here on earth has not been done. I do not want to leave anything incomplete. Everything must be put away, packed in boxes, connections that were once as alive as electricity must be disconnected. I’ve been close to death. Close enough. I think about you a lot. You were kind, nice, sweet, and younger. You made me feel like a museum piece, a statue. It’s been years since I’ve seen you. Not so long ago we sat and laughed as if we were old friends, good friends. I made you coffee. You made me forget my sadness, my manipulative nature, my family’s arrogant manipulative nature and in some small, adequate way I began to feel alive again as if I could survive everything that life had arranged, assembled for me. But I am bad for you. I am not the chosen one meant for you. How can I make you understand this? I do not belong in your world. There is nothing welcoming or bold about the arrival of me. Choose another. I am giving you your freedom. Hush. Here. Now go. I want to watch you, study you, watch you fail, surrender, let go, fight for the underdog, understand you, comprehend you, what makes you whole, what makes you think, what do you love? What opinions do you have on the current trends in politics, who will you vote for this year, do you believe in magic, why have you not forgotten me, what do you remember, do you have any fears (do you have any fears about my disability), what anchors you? In forgetting you, the pieces, the tiny bits that refuse to evaporate have become distilled beautifully and I also have realised that I need to write more than I need human company. I don’t care about ambition. If other women think you’re arrogant let them think that. Don’t waste your time, your energy on them. If other men want to destroy you, your empires, your soul then let them think that they are getting away with that. I’ve forgotten about your mistress, your ego that strokes your vanity (that I can’t take away from you). It belongs somewhere else but not in your personal space. Children need the ego. It makes them feel different in a special kind of way in a world filled with ducks and games. I hate the smell of cigarette smoke but am intrigued by women who do smoke, with their airs and graces, with all their manufactured secrets and that one slim cigarette held between their fingers. The women in my family do not smoke. They’re like a union of spies. I only learned about fear late in life. They do not drink red wine out of a box only fruit juice cocktail on special occasions like birthdays, Christmas and Easter. They do not sit for portraits, go to parks, spread out a blanket for a romantic picnic lunch made for two. They only go to the beach in December when it is the summertime in Southern Africa. There’s something clean and pure about depression when it is looked at with the round peg that can’t fit in the square hole in the eye. Clarity is found and so is rest. The people-traffic-zoo outside is possessed with identity and the idea of not emancipating themselves. Why would they do that if they think that their reality, their dreams, their goals and their imagination is enough for them? The stem grows. The branch reaches forwards and we all move towards the light hoping that it will put the spotlight on us. When I feel weak inside is when mummy speaks to me. My heart slips and thuds inside of me at the same time. There’s no awakened rhythm in that red palace. All the voices of mother, father, mummy, daddy, sister, brother become familiar to me. They are not the same people all of the time and their visions are awesomely vibrant and energetic, burning like phosphorescence, a lone star. They orbit me. The invisible air tastes like salt. My mouth gulps down slippery seawater that licks the insides of every one of my teeth. I want to feel you inside of me, as I open up to you like the flowers of a manuscript. I’ve already lost you to another woman. Is she a girl, does she have a matron’s figure at a girl’s boarding school or is she as dead to you as I am to you now. I don’t say these things to get at you, to think like you do, to get inside your head I’m just lost in the silence of violence like George Botha, Richard Rive, Kevin Carter, Dulcie September, Arthur Nortje and when I feel most intensely lost is when I write poetry, that is when everything I’ve collected in my heart comes out. I really don’t care for now’s sake if I never saw pictures of you, heard sob stories of you again in my life, your living memory, so romantically-felt is enough for me and it will stay with me until the end of my lifetime. The heat. It’s hot, intolerably-hot and there is nothing I can do to eliminate it. Was I really loved as a child? It serves to improve the lies I keep telling myself. That I am not pretty enough, tall enough, enough for enough’s sake. There are millions of children who are not loved, who bathe every day in dust and shit. Life is designed for oppression, ridicule, rejection but also for liberation. In some wanton way the world makes us want to move backward without us having any say about it. House torched. It was burned down to the ground with two children in it. The door was locked. The mother was away. There was no father as there is often in these cases. And so another community is brought together but this is no celebration of life. They thought a witch lived there. It shows how fragile we are as humanity. And I am preoccupied with love when the world around me is burning. These are all things we wish that could be buried in peace and dust and memory. There are happy, healthy progeny. Mums that are glowing in a blue and white hospital gowns. Their skin radiant with life but what happens when you like writing poetry about death, grief and denial. It is a land that time forgot. This kind of writing (poetry) is a writing that so few people can understand. There were no angels on the frontier when pioneers confronted wilderness and poverty in Southern Africa just dust that has been here for millions of years. The lasagne tastes good. It was made by a prophet, my mother. The prophetess. I’ve worshipped her all my life. She has taught me how to forgive, how to live, and I am beautifully grown now. Although the universe is still sweeter, purer, more honourable than I am with all its untitled interpretations. How can the extraordinary unconscious of the universe be anything but baffled by humanity. I am. People are not as invincible as they think they are. Freedom fighters every one? Unfortunately no. Coldness. Aloofness. Indifference. Introspection. Suffering. Water. Ghost nations. Precious bittersweet gifts every one. Nothing belongs to us.
Stupidly we make our way to the church.
There has been a death in the family. The chicken soup has been made. We are all distracted. In the kitchen on the counter top, the vinegar holds up in its robes of motherhood the pickles, the onions and the olives extraordinarily. We need the exploration of food to make it through the day. We need routine like we need to find prayer in today’s goals and dreams. My mother’s belly burned me like that when she carried me in her womb. Her belly was a jewel. Diamond pale. In it, I found nurture and moonlight, expressions of night, rest and placenta. While I slept, I was patched with a surge of vulnerable taproots that cannot be traced anymore.
Pockets are waking. Things of illusion, beautiful things of imagination like celestial light, the tapestry of stars and the stem work of relief. Like health, that most elusive thing we are all fighting to protect each other. Speech is ice. Then there are those mornings when it pours down cats and dogs. When I feel myself falling into morning. When I feel as if there is ice in my lungs. Leftover potato salad has never tasted so good. It came straight out of the fridge onto my lap. This is the aftermath. My feast of vertigo. My lunch of closure. I am eating it with a fork.
It comes with flashbacks of relationships that are now just as dead to me as my aunt who is buried six feet under, pushing up daisies. It was both alcoholism and diabetes. She stopped breathing in her hospital bed. She was wasting away in front of her family. I think of the boys I never smoked with. I think of the men I never kissed. This is how I live now. I remember. In the palace of that fluid world of the distinguished older man who was made of substance, experience and influence, I was the one who found herself living by the skin of her teeth. I have a psychiatrist’s appointment this week.
What will she have to say, that beautiful, headstrong Afrikaner that I have absolutely nothing in common with? As a poet, I am on a journey. It is killing me. I am alone and it is killing me. I will myself not to cry those tears of self-pity. During the appointment, will we talk about my estranged family or my poetry, my addictions, my emotional instability or how I am coping under all of these circumstances? I do not need therapy. I do not need the anti-depressants that will deliver me from sin and damnation. I just want to inspire people. I want to make a difference. I want to save people. Are things like that not laudable?
Are they not worthy of praise? I stopped drinking before it really became a problem. The breakthrough came when I saw what it did to my aunt and the relationships she had with her sons. They lost all respect for her. They loved her, how could that of all things change but it made them sad as if they were losing the best part of themselves. When history finally becomes a dream, the wuthering heights of darkness is lost, something is communicated to the world at large through the scent of rosebushes and the fragrances of bacon frying in its own grease and fat.
‘I want to take you to a place that you feel comfortable.’ How I live and breathe for those words every six months from my psychiatrist. Going to the lab every six months. Sitting in that chair and prepping myself for when the nurse prods my skin and the needle goes in. I do not want to be a part of this anymore I want to scream but I cannot do that because too many people depend upon me. Back to the kitchen with me. What is on the menu tonight? Memory and desire from childhood. Chicken with thyme and potatoes. Mum’s version. I do the preparation. Cutting and peeling. Mapping out supper.
In two or three hours we will all take our places at the kitchen table and they, what is left of my family will eat what I have prepared. I will grace and my father will tuck in. As I said before I do not need the anti-depressants that will deliver me from sin and damnation. Why death? Why life? Why the impulse to pick up a book, lose interest in it and then to put it down again and forget about it? Why the sex drive, the impulse to pay for intimacy, the maintenance of the woman who provides the sexual transaction? Why reconciliation? Why oral traditions and indigenous knowledge systems? Why the intellectually superior types?
Why is the woman still inferior to man when it comes to writing, spirituality, philosophy and painting? Whispering madness. It will only be a man who will find themselves alone on a mountain. Now I speak to the one person in the world who came closest to understanding me. My future adult self says that I miss you as if the world misses a hurricane or a tsunami. I want my revenge on every dark-haired boy. Perhaps then, I will understand love. The proof of sin is in the doing and then in asking for forgiveness. I go to the beach. I take my shoes off and walk towards the water. The wind is up. I sit down, cross my feet. I roll up my jeans to my knees.
I watch the children with their buckets and spades and I think of the children I will never have. I watch the surfers, the couples sitting on towels who flirt with each other. I watch the young girls in bikinis who sunbathe. Infertility can do that to you. Make you give up all hope. From madness to now, more and again that can do it to you too. I am an armchair traveller reading geniuses. I think it is the only safe merchandise I have in my house that cannot hurt me. I have never been a part of a couple since my early twenties. There are too many delusions, illusions, paradigms shifting, phoenixes finding the exit out and ghost stories.
These days I depend too much on my intuition at the grocery store. What would my father like? What would my father love? I think of my childhood as I stir, cook, peel, remove the scrapings, the eggshells and make space for the perishables going to the compost heap and the other stuff that is going in the dirt bags, the wasteland. I remember how competitive my siblings and I were at the swings. In the yard, there is blue skies and sunshine. There are dogs chasing birds. My dad scratches both of them between their ears. I can hear the speaker from a tent church on the other side of the world. I have to plant something. Something green. A green feast.
We already have trees. We have flowers. We have rosebushes. Life searches for life. I am lost but I cannot run away from home anymore. I am no longer that teenage runaway. Running up streets and down streets. Making a home in libraries in Johannesburg and Swaziland. One a city. One a country. What do people do? They celebrate life. They participate in activities. Some meaningful and some not. In the mornings, I go and check to see if my dad is quite literally still alive. He has so many aches and pains. If he snores then I know he is okay. If he turns around in bed, I know he is okay.
Sometimes, just sometimes my heart beats faster and faster. Sometimes I feel very afraid for absolutely no reason at all.
‘Coffee, dad?’ I pull the blanket that was hiding his face away from it. His eyes are open.
‘Morning. How are you? How did you sleep? Yes, please bring me some. Thanks. I need some so I can wake up properly.’ Before I answer him, I hand him the steaming hot cup of coffee. I know in twenty minutes it will still be standing next to the bed cold.
‘How did you sleep, dad?’
‘Not so good.’
‘Do you want to talk about it, dad?’
‘I dreamt about Jan Hollingshead again. The good times we had together. The fact that I loved her. I loved her a great deal. Not the way a man loves a woman but in a much more spiritual sense. You know?’
‘Yes I know dad. I know what you mean.’ It came to me how naturally human nature is flawed.
We have the same conversations. We drink lots of lukewarm tea. We talk about our doctors, about our counselling sessions, about the flashbacks we have sometimes, our nervous breakdowns, our hospitalisations. What people used to call institutionalisations in the old days.
Mostly we speak in monosyllables or say nothing at all. My mother has disappeared to Johannesburg to visit my sister. There is a thrill to the day. All we seem to eat these days is chicken. Chicken sandwiches with wilted lettuce. Dry chicken with broccoli and potato bake. Roast chicken with the juices running dry. Takeaway chicken. Chicken curry. Chicken stew.
Chicken soup with noodles. This chicken was a chronic metaphor for mental illness in the wards of Elizabeth Donkin, Hunterscraig, Tara, Valkenburg and Garden City Clinic. All the wards that my father had been in for his illness and how I had followed him, in his footsteps. I watched the waves. A young couple’s embrace. I did not wish I could be part of that game (too many snakes, too many ladders, and not many exit routes, too many destinations leading to anywhere and nowhere fast). The girl had a loveliness to her. Her youth was on her side and I was losing mine.
I knew that embrace was not real. It was only temporary like the happiness a fairy tale gave you before you had to put the book away. There was a sadness to the day. There was also a knowledge from it that I had to take away from it. It was almost as if the vibrations of the day was armed with a tragic heaviness, and it inspired loneliness within me. The seas grandeur was not as grandiose as the universe’s. All of this knowledge terrified me. I knew the girl would lose her looks as I had lost my appeal to older men. Now I was just old and my intelligence did not just seem to terrify me, it terrified the men too.
Mothers do not tell you that with intuition comes reading other people’s minds. Nothing would ever inspire me to put on a bathing costume again to go swimming in the sea in front of all these clowns who were jazzed up like lizards with the golden embrace and the texture of the warmth of the sunshine. Call it self-pity then if you want or lack of confidence for a better word. My physical body had seemed to take on a life of its own now. It was surer of itself. I was no longer a stupid girl wanting a man’s attention, willing to do anything for it, not seeing through their fake postures as they waited for me in bed to emerge from the bathroom in hotels.
I knew some had wives, some had girlfriends, some had children or a child on the way, some had bonds, some had overdrafts, some had mortgages (which meant absolutely nothing to me no matter how hard I tried to remember) and I was putting myself in a bad way. Just because he was divorced did not mean he was going to marry me. In my twenties, I was not intelligent or wise. I was just a sponge. Soaking up information happily or trembling as he folded me into his arms whispering sweet nothings into my ear. I never smoked with him. The man who I thought was the one who was going to rescue me.
Save me from a fate worse than death in the big celestial light city. I watched him smoke. I drowned as he smoked. As he flirted with other girls. In his game, I was a pawn. Easy to get rid of. I never had that killer instinct his other women, his other girls had. At night these men, these older men would make incredible gestures, they would go to all this trouble to see that I was comfortable and I in all innocence mistook that to mean that now we were in a relationship. Now we were truly in love but now I realise they were like stars to me. All of these men could see my future self.
As I look at my infirm father and he turns to look at me and smile with fatherly concern written on his face, I wonder do all of those men I slept with still remember me and smile at their daughters with fatherly concern written on their faces. It is a face I recognise like rain pouring down.
The argument was about nothing really. I really cannot remember who started it first. It was between a girl, barely out of adolescence and her married boyfriend. Perhaps I told him that I did not think that my mother really loved or accepted the choices I made in my life and that I thought he could be supportive of me. Was he really listening? Girls need their mothers more than they need their fathers. Girls need devoted parents. All I could feel was emotional. He was cold and non-committal. I knew my place and he knew his. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs was, ‘Listen to me, please!’ I already knew it would be ignored.
‘We’re not making love anymore?’
‘So what? We can do other things. We are not in the primitive ages anymore. We can talk. You know what I want. I want a married life.’
‘That’s why I have a wife. I can talk to her.’
‘This is not a relationship?’
‘I know this is not a relationship.’
‘All this talk is making me depressed.’
‘Go home. Go home to your family, lady. Go home to your mother and your father.’
‘Why do you want to hurt me?’
‘This is the end of whatever dream you had.’
‘Of course I can see that. I can see it when you look at me. Please don’t talk to me like this?’
‘You want me to tell you that I need you. I don’t need you. You don’t need me as much as you think you do.’
‘I’m in pain. Can’t you see that?’
‘Yes, you’re in pain. You are giving me a headache. Go away. Leave me alone and stop calling me. What if my wife picked up? What then? This is not love. When people treat each other this way. This, this is not love.’
‘When you were young did you ever map your life out? Of who you were going to get married to? Your wife? Your life? Your children?’
‘You’ll grow up and then one day you’ll wake up and I’ll be the last thing you remember. The last thing on your mind. You will not have to put me on your itinerary. You won’t have to make as if you cook and clean on my account.’
‘We always fight. I realise that now.’
‘Good. Then leave.’
‘Go. Just go. In the end you’ll see it is better that way.’
‘Talk to me. Humour me. Tell me a story about a lost, frightened girl who comes to the big city with a myriad of dreams. In the end, none of her dreams comes true. She sleeps with men in hotels. She is hurt. Flesh is flesh. What happens to a lady and a man? Do they meet and always fall in love? What happens then is that nothing good comes from it? The man leaves and she does not have any self-worth.’
‘You don’t deserve this. The way I have treated you. Go out into the world. Make something of yourself. You are young. You are attractive. That is the dream world, the high art of the female outsider. I need to know that you are going to be fine about this.’
‘You need to know that you are fine with the fact that you are ending my world as I know it.’
‘Do you want to smoke?’
‘I don’t smoke. You know that.’
‘You need to relax. So this is the first time then for you.’
‘Men have left me before. This is not the first time. You were not the first. You are going to make me cry. Maybe it is best if you don’t say anything anymore.’
‘Have a cigarette with me anyway.’
‘Cigarettes make me cough. They taste terrible.’
‘You never complained before. Now you are complaining.’
‘Things were different before. By that, I mean I was going to see you again. I was happy that I was going to see you again. I would have done anything in the world for you, you know. I know how to love someone. Someone even like you. Someone powerful and insecure and full doubts and insecurities.’
‘So you have discovered a man’s secret at last. That we are much more vulnerable than a woman.’
‘And no doubt I will keep discovering it over and over again. I really do not mind if you smoke that last cigarette now. Let me just find my shoes and the rest of my clothes. I’ll go now.’
The world is not my home. Everything in this world seems to be a test or temporary. Fading out as the sunset at the end of the day or illuminating human flaws, truths that are eternal for us. We are indulgent creatures. We need trust. We need loyalty. We need kindness. We need family even though children can be selfish brats sometimes and husbands and wives and friends. We flirt. We flit. We make nests and then when they are empty there is a depression that never leaves us and that is why children come home for the holidays. The unseen is eternal. Ghost stories. Christmas. Fish. I have left childhood behind. They were gifts of great spiritual maturity.
The psychiatrist teaches me how to let go, surrender if you will but how does a person let go of the only world (childhood) that she (I) have ever known. All is gold. We speak about the feelings of being emotionally bankrupt. Unable to deal with the voices in unison in society that are blocking mine out. She says I also have to be heard. People have to listen to me too. Gone are the passages of contentment in books. I have no time to waste on something that I feel does not exist for me or for those who live in spiritual poverty. I have to learn how to love, how to marry but my parents were not good examples of this. I have to own this space, she says.
I am a dreamer. I am a dreamer who has goals, as I am sure Virginia Woolf had goals with the relationships she had, with her writing, with her diaries and letters, with her marriage. Perhaps I desire the same things she did. In her lifetime. In her world. Who made up the rules anyway? I had a bad past and then I think of Alice in her terrifying trippy wonderland. Woolf knew of gender betrayal, constructing sympathy for her characters in her novels. Her hair as fine as Whitman’s blades of grass. Woolf’s words come in waves. They cut me deep. Their serious depth, desolate isolation, rejection and suicidal despair is there for the world to see, to read.
As an adolescent, Woolf was already an intellectual. As an adolescent, I was already an intellectual. There was no psychoanalyst for her violent madness. Her outbursts. Sometimes I think I cannot walk down that road again. It is not a sunny road. It is not the road to Oz. There is a landmark exhilaration when dawn comes as if to say light beckons now, awake! With the light comes the awareness of a new day, vitality and energy for the nerves in your brain cells. Night comes with the same minutia. It is only now that the sun has faded away. The moon and the tapestry of stars is out.
Lovers embrace in dark bedrooms across the world but I am in mourning because I cannot be with that one man who changed my world, who changed my world with one caress. A precarious touch and instantly there was a change in my suffering and my head, my biology was wired differently. The lonely cannot exist. Spiritually they die. The identity is decaying as they speak, walk, and think, constructing sentences, a string of verbal and non-verbal communication. So what if I am a virgin again. Virgins thinks of sensuality and sexuality just as much as other people do but differently.
Sensuality becomes noble. Sexuality becomes an electric waiting game. Why are there all these games in this life, in this world? Sexuality is not something that is alien to the virgin. She reads about it. Sometimes when she reads about it, she will think of her infertility, her breasts, her shoulders, the nape of her neck. The physical parts of her body that are the most sensitive to touch. Sometimes when she reads about it, she will blush. The weather is comic. First, there is sun, and then it is as if rain clouds are gathering and then the sun comes out again. I think of the dark room. I think of the lovers and how I will never be a part of that world again.
It hurts too much to think, to breathe over what I have lost. What is a man? What is an older man? Grey hair at his temples. Wisdom beyond his years. Influence within his reach. Power. Powerful. Kings of their empires. Trophy wives at their sides or their best friends. Children. Children. Children. The children I will never have. What is love? Instead, I have research, my writing, and those are things that I am passionate about. I am a feminist but I am also a daughter who still a child. Wanting attention. Wanting approval. Wanting gifts. I need a change of suffering. World did you hear me? I need a change of suffering.
It is time women begin to listen to each other. It is time we all called each other feminists. It is a new word for me. Feminist. What does it mean? It has its own beauty. It has its own identity. The tragedy of the relationship that faltered is that it was both romantic and playful as it neared its end. The mood was spiritual and pensive. He was the land and I was the sea. My hands and feet were made of clay. Easily melted away by water. While his empires were made of (guess), steel girders planted into the ground, held down by gravity. He destroyed me. With every measure of success, that he acquires he lives on now in relative wealth. I live with my parents.
From here on out it, life is an unknown destination. From here on out life is unpredictable. I am 35 going on 40. Silence is wonderful when all you hear is birdsong. Backyards have their own wisdom. Trees seem to fill that precious hour. Pour into your humanity. This, this is my tribe. Nature. Time is precious. So is life. They are sacred. I am an arrangement of combinations of particles, matter, opportunities, challenges, threads, cells and platelets that communicate with each other. Just as Virginia Woolf lined her pockets with stones and stepped into the River Ouse.
Just as she communicates to me from the world or the region that she is in now, the beautiful drowning visitor I communicate with the profound and the concrete. The lake’s surface is built like concrete. Perfect for skating but the skin, the fabric of what she was wearing, her shiny forehead is down there somewhere. Winter in the end. It is always winter in the end that rises up to meet me. In my dreams, there is a remote area in Greenland. Like the end of winter, we do not always remember childhood. It gives itself to us in dreams after the innocence; the light goes out in the world of a child.
How we appear in our parents eyes, in the end does it matter? It only really matters if we are happy individuals who become happy adults instead of functioning in dysfunctional households. Women keep on meeting different men all the time, up close and personal. Women want intimacy. Men want sex. I loved that book. Instead, I gave it to him. A boy. A man. I cannot remember which posture his shoulders and his height was brought to my attention. Thinking that it would heal some part of me. The broken parts of me. Parts I had misplaced so deep that I hoped nobody could find them. I needed music and he was my source of everything.
Romanticism, pleasure, pain, intimacies and finding desolate landscape after desolate landscape but the truths that I found in the book was not the same for him as it was for me so I had to give up on him. He could not be my Leonard Woolf. It took me a long time to work him out of my system.
‘Have you ever seen a man naked? You don’t have any reason to be afraid. I am not going to hurt you.’ He makes a ceremony out of everything. Lighting the candles, pouring the wine and giving me a glass of wine that I pretend to drink in tiny sips. Incense and scented candles are burning. I can even smell the scent of roses. Does every female writer ever have an experience of lesbian passion? Echoes in a wasteland. Images from a wilderness. The female writer is an intuitive. She is a catalyst.
I lay on the bed in sweltering Durban thinking, if only he knew. Would it matter? Would it make a difference? I knew why he wanted to see me. It was not for conversation. He meant to educate me. I had come such a long way. From Johannesburg to Durban for this. For this charade to play itself out. That I was innocent. That I was so delicate my bones could break. I would be staying a week in his flat. I knew we would not leave to see the sights. Durban had beaches and restaurants that served up spicy Indian cuisine. Of course, he was going to hurt me.
Of course, he was going to break my heart but there had been a line filled with monsters, beasts, and men, wolves, older men before him who had pressured me into doing something I did not want to do. Who had in the end made it out to be my idea? Then there was one man who wanted to photograph me, another who wanted to call me by another name. Probably the name of a lover who had left him or the other way around. I feel his mouth against mine, that slight pressure. His breath is warm. His mouth, his lips are dry. What was his name again? He did something important. He was on television. He made a lot of money. He was engaged. He had a son. So young. Youth wasted. I have always wanted the qualities of a young mother.
‘Take your clothes off but do it slowly.’ He said authoritatively.
‘Why?’ I asked shyly.
‘You haven’t done this before so I want it to be special for you. I want you to feel safe, comfortable. Aren’t you happy with me? With everything that I’ve done for you today?’ he whined. Yes, I could hear a whine in his voice. He was so close. We were too far into this game and so I had to go ahead with it. I had to go ahead with this snowball effect. He had paid for everything. Paid me to come here. Met me at the bus. Carried my suitcases.
We ate leftovers. Cold pizza. Yes, he had paid for this sexual transaction well in advance. I thought to myself. What was I supposed to say to that? He did take me to the beach. I was not hungry. I did not want anything to eat. I could see he was crestfallen by this. I knew instinctively that I had to make it up to him somehow but how, but why? I felt foolish for coming. He thought he knew my reasons for coming. That I was in love with him. He was the fool and not me. I could have laughed aloud but he had gone to all this trouble of making me feel safe and comfortable. Now I am home, 35, and over a decade later.
What brings me bliss is cooking? It is therapeutic. Life is made up of moments. Some happy. Some unpleasant that sound like Verdi, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. There is something special about behaving as if it is the end of the virgin’s world. You become a woman. What does that mean exactly? I am seeing a new psychiatrist after my last nervous breakdown. The new pills seem to be helping me cope. It is funny how a psychiatric patient does not need or want sex. You seem to lose that impulse, and that sex drive. Where does it go? What happens to it? Is it numbed? There is shark-infested waters out there. There is evil and danger.
They are called men. The thirst for relationships has left me. Once again, I am an empty vessel.
‘Mum, how are you?’ I felt the coins in my jean jacket. I wanted home. I wanted mum.
‘Fine. Why are you calling? Is something wrong?’ I could hear the whine in her voice.
‘No. Nothing.’ I replied. I hummed.
‘Your friend. Your girlfriend. Is she nice? Where are the both of you staying? Are you getting a lot of sun?’ She seemed to perk up a bit.
‘Everything is fine.’ Why was I lying? Why did I run away from home again? Was it because of the complex and complicated relationship I had with my sad, elegant, longsuffering mother?
Why did I do this to her? My father had left us. He was there physically but he had left us to our own devices. Two women on their own. A single parent had to be both mother and father. I could blame the anorexia on him. The distant father who wanted a social life and a wife who could be an active participant in that world. He wanted someone who would attend functions on his arm, smiling and nodding her head, looking out for him. Two women on their own. My mother did not really understand mental illness. Then one day unexpectedly he returned. After a hospital stay.
We were father and daughter, hostile tributes aside that had to count for something. With my mother away in Johannesburg, my father and I confide in each other now. Frank talk exposing illness.
Everything else was forgotten. I look at my books. No one will ever know where it really came from. No one will know the man who really inspired me to the wuthering heights, who helped my gift along. One day as I have said before I will never have youth on my side. Youth is wasted on the young. Will this make me bitter or crazy down the line? I am already crazy. I am already too thin. The skin and bone of an anorexic woman have many ghost stories to tell. Skinny legs. The flesh of a bird. I feel it in my bones. I feel the lonely life of crazy in my bones. It was planted there somehow like a sonnet, keys to a post-apartheid future.
Psychoanalysis is filled with statements. Wrecks with gut symmetries. Frail beauty. Here humanity becomes relentless as they once did at the discovery of treasure after treasure in the wilderness of the rural countryside in another life. Writers are dreamers. Dreamers who plunge into all the universal symbolism has to offer. Expressions of suffering, heritage and knowledge.
Is writing a book like childbirth, a Darwinian experience, a sensorial experiment, an engagement? The problems with symbolism is that it gives us a sense of our own mortality. A sense of false hope. In a dream, we might come upon a cauldron of water. What does this mean?
The only thing that fits that kind of dream-reality in our existence is the warm sea, destination anywhere of the shoreline, the swimming pool or to go bathing in a river, wading into that weight of water. Once upon a time, we too were fish. Once upon a time, we too were intuitive children. Mushrooms are beautiful delicate things. The melons for this time of year are beautiful too. Food is too glorious for words. Food is like sex. We need it for our survival. If we do not have children to follow in our footsteps who will write history over repeatedly.
Light comes in waves. They come in their own time. Their own medium of survival therapy. Their own ceremony in the shadows. The real world, reality, sanity, normal is a trap. Light is made up of the angelic. It is made up of the otherworldliness against the common particles of this world. I have gone so high. I have crashed romantically trying to live with the decisions I have made. Atonement can be beautiful like videotape. There is no room for lies only a lighthouse, only fulfilment, only videotape. A man can have sexual fulfilment. For a woman fulfilment is mingled in her blood, if she can see her unborn children in her lover’s eyes.
Had Virginia Woolf known love? Real love with Vita Sackville-West? What did she think of marriage? I write for women and I write for men. I am a feminist and a humanist but the question is can I be both. I have also known lesbian passion but it was never quite enough. It was driftwood. It was cats and dogs. It was a constellation. It was the red shred of a balloon in the hand of a screaming child. It was paste. It was a vital breathing lesson. It was gold and bright and illumined my world for a fraction. It was the investigation of a distillate. I feel a disembodiment when I talk about that time, feeling her fingers in mine, brushing her hair out of her face.
I feel that there are apparitions inside my head. They come with their own prepared speeches, airs and graces. These damned adventurers. Did Virginia Woolf write enough, too much, or too little? Would she have liked to have children, a child, and a son? What is so dead wrong with married life for me? Would I not grow if I had companionship, if I had love, if I had someone to take care of me? Someone to lean on. Sometimes I feel so cold. My nerves tingling in my hands as if in this universe there are other worlds out there that are magical, stranger than fiction, haiku, Mr Muirhead, famous people. Now I am older but am I wiser?
Ghosts. Ghosts. Ghosts. They all have their own stories to tell. What the hell? I kissed a girl, have slept with men. Have known love as Woolf’s Orlando in my dreams and reality. There is this other feeling. I cling to things. To beautiful things. It is the feeling you get inside you heart as you find the words inside your head when you sing along to your favourite song on the radio. Who was she? Who was Virginia Woolf? Will the real Virginia Woolf please stand up? Will everyone who is anyone please stand up and give Virginia Woolf a standing ovation for making it so far, thus far? Was her life complete or incomplete?
The sea. Trough. Crest. Trough. Crest. The waves emit their own frequency. I have the season ticket for the swimming pool. There is two hardboiled eggs for everyone for breakfast. Toast galore. A wasteland of breakfasts in middle class homes. The accomplished man that I see in front of me does not care for me anymore in any way. I am the least of his worries. Now I must survive. My mother is no longer at the height of her awareness as a bride. She no longer has those virginal mental faculties within reach, that ego of an adolescent girl now that she has brought children into the world. I must swim. I must regain something that I have lost. I must recover. I must evolve for a revolution from within to take place.
High school, Port Elizabeth, 1995
‘The light. What do you think of the light?’
‘It’s day. The light comes with day. The sun comes with dawn.’
‘It’s always hot. It’s South Africa.’
‘It’s post-apartheid South Africa.’ However, what she really wanted to say was I am in love with you. Marc, I am in love with the light in your serious brown eyes. Talk to me about anything.
‘You always have to be right about everything.’
‘You don’t think I have a superiority complex.’
‘No.’ she lied. ‘No. Who told you that?’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. I don’t really care. I mean if you say it’s not true then it’s not true.’ Marc shrugged his shoulders. It made him look even more handsome to her.
‘We should go to the beach.’
‘I don’t like the beach.’
‘Everybody likes the beach.’
‘By now you should know that I am not everyone.’ He turned around to look at her with concern in his eyes.
‘Are you okay?’
‘No, no I’m fine. I just had an argument with my mother again this morning. I don’t think she likes me very much.’
‘Maybe she doesn’t like the world. Maybe that’s what really bothering her, not you. Maybe your parents don’t have sex anymore. Don’t worry about you so much.’ Then Marc leaned in and hugged her hard.
‘I like the light today. It makes me happy. You make me happy. You make me laugh.’
‘Thanks.’ Marc said and smiled. He wasn’t wearing his glasses today.
‘I hate high school.’
‘Maybe you hate high school because you read Virginia Woolf.’
‘I think all her books are masterpieces.’
‘So what was Sylvia Plath’s masterpiece?’
‘Ariel. Chose another one Marc.’
‘Chose a masterpiece of Rainer Maria Rilke and Goethe.’
‘For Rilke I would have to choose and this is difficult but it is a book I love. Letters to a Young Poet. For Goethe it would have to be Faust. Please don’t choose Shakespeare but if you did because poetry is my first love I would have to choose his sonnets over his plays.’
‘Do you think we would ever get married like that?’
‘Like what? A marriage of convenience you mean.’
Thirty something, Port Elizabeth, 2013
Her hair was like a rosebush. It was full of tangles after her swim. In her eyes was the waves and the lighthouse. An empty house in an English novel on the coat that was once filled with children. Rumpus and an unmarried woman by the name of Lily Briscoe in her imagination. Her face was touched with salt and light followed the glimmer of the sailboats on the horizon. It was the anglers’ doing, catching all of those fish for an eternity. In reality, she lived in post-apartheid South Africa. In reality, she wrote novels. In her twenties, she lived in the adolescent wasteland of Johannesburg, a wilderness of people who had no concern for others.
High school, Port Elizabeth, 1995
‘What are you really thinking about Marc?’
‘I am thinking about the first time I have sex.’
‘You’re thinking about the performance.’
‘You can’t really act as if you’re in love. You have to feel it. You have to feel all that loveliness in your bones. Would you choose madness or becoming a bride?’
‘Marc, you should know the answer to that one by now. I would choose madness.’
‘You know what? You are depressing. You’re stressing me out.’
Thirty something, Port Elizabeth, 2013
In her thirties, after her homecoming, after that celebration she began to write. It would not leave her. The phenomena of moths flapping their wings incessantly in the light as if they were glad to see her as she rinsed the sea and the smell of the day out of her hair in the bathroom sink. Her father was calling. They would have a light supper together of tuna fish sandwiches and red cappuccinos. The world around her had lost its exploratory feel and she became engaged in writing about relationships instead of having them with the opposite sex. She detached herself from having a myriad of beautiful things.
High school, Port Elizabeth, 1995
‘Let’s sit here and have lunch.’
‘What did you bring?’
‘Tuna fish sandwiches. Do you want to swap?’
‘There’s ants here.’
‘Ants aren’t going to kill us. Sit Marc. They’re not going to steal our lunches.’
‘I have peanut butter. Did you make your own lunch?’
‘My mother makes my lunch.’
‘We had wine with our lunch yesterday.’
‘What did you have?’
‘We had chicken. We always have chicken on Sundays.’
Thirty something, Port Elizabeth, 2013
She removed herself from the world at large and material possessions. She no longer attacked vehemently the gender betrayal and the class system. Women who had the vote should now also have equal pay if they were to have equal rights. She knew how other woman lived. They were happy with their lot in their own way. Their families were dysfunctional in their own way. The married woman. The married man. She had nothing in common with them. Even the intellectual woman who wanted the same powers and killer instinct that the intellectual man had but did you see women building empires.
High school, Port Elizabeth, 1995
‘Do you love me Marc?’
‘Of course I love you. We are best friends remember.’
‘Will we always be this close?’ As it happened, their friendship dissolved before their last year of high school ended.
Thirty something, Port Elizabeth, 2013
The intellectual woman although she wanted the powers of an intellectual man did not want to be haunted the same way he was. She did not want to be reduced to a thing like the homemaker with her domestic responsibilities. The homemaker, standing barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen taking out the meat from the refrigerator to defrost. To her in some way with her hair that was like a rosebush there were still feelings in her in that pathetic, lame way to long for things that although you wish for them you know will never be yours. It will never be enough to be fulfilled. She knew it would never satisfy her.
Early twenties, Johannesburg, 2002
‘Rain. You smell like rain. Your hair. I like your hair like this.’ A style like a ponytail never goes out of fashion. She wanted to say. A man whispered sweet nothings in her ear in a club where the music was too loud. Did she smell like childhood rain, rain from a garden sprinkler (where are you now mum, she thought to herself to save me from this)? She wondered to herself. Was it the kind of rain that smelled like leftover old spaghetti sauce that you heated up on the stove on a rainy day kind of rain with the fragrance of half an onion lingering in the fridge? Sigmund Freud’s kind of rain. For her there would always be sexual healing in that word ‘rain’.
‘You are a good girl. A very good girl. I’m sure you make your parents very proud.’
‘What about your parents?’ she asks slyly or shyly.
‘I think that is why I drink sometimes.’ He answers her candidly.
‘My parents. I think it’s a product of my childhood. Does anyone have a happy childhood? I was always being told I had potential but I don’t know if I ever lived up to their expectations. In high school, I was always the disappointment of the family I guess. The black sheep.’ He squeezed her as he said this. In reply she mouthed, ‘Me and you both I guess looking for happiness in all the wrong places on a Saturday night in a club in downtown Johannesburg.’
‘I like you, you know.’ He had glassy eyes and she was moody. He was drinking too much and she had not even touched her drink. The ice was melting fast. She was thirsty.
‘What do you say? Do you want to get out of this place?’ he staggered a bit. ‘We can sit in my car.’ As they walked outside, he put his arm around her waist.
She wanted to ask him, ‘Does this mean we are a couple now? Do you think you own me? Do you think I am your possession?’
‘Look here, what kind of underwear are you wearing or aren’t you wearing any?’ She felt dirty and saintly at the same time. She abhorred the situation but she was caught up in the thrill of it as well. All she had to do was listen to his conversation, laugh with him, laugh at his unfunny jokes, stare into his eyes, moan at every inappropriate stroke, touch and caress.
‘Have you ever been with a man, lady? You hardly touched your drink. You could have at least had a drink with me. My wife. She nags. She whines. If you could just hear her. She was going on about this and about that today. It is a never-ending stuck record. How I never spend quality time with the boys, they’re just kids, what kind of advice should I give them? On the direction to take with their lives? They’re just kids. Both of them are just interested in computers. You ever watch pornography. You are pretty in that way you know. Okay. Okay. I apologise. I went too far. What good girls don’t get half the time is how highly sexed men are you know?
‘I’m sorry. I still respect you. Do you want to come with me? It’s warmer in my car. I can put the radio on and the heater and we can just talk, that’s if you want to do that.’ He begins to laugh and this makes me smile. Suddenly we are at his car and I do not have a care in the world. He knows what he wants. He knows what he has paid for. I am cold. The idea of sex. The idea of sex in the backseat of his car. I want my mother. He doesn’t even know how old I am. He doesn’t care. Does his wife know where he is? Out at a club drinking with a volunteer who works with mentally challenged and physically disabled adults. A female who is half his age.
‘This is not your first time is it?’ He looks at me a bit worried for the first time. I can pretend for your sake stupid boy that it is not and lose my virginity to a married loser person who is smashed out of his face, his skull. Brain cells tripping high. I need love as I need the light. The light breeze in my homeland of my hometown. The primitive intimacy of my tribe, my family. Do you want to know something? I want to ask him. Do you know I was in a hospital for crazies? Yes, that’s the right term. I was normal for a long time and then I woke up one day as if curled up in the foetal position in a psychiatric hospital. Discovered it was not a dream.
Go ahead. Do your business? See if I care. Just don’t ask me if I am okay. Don’t ask me if I am comfortable. Just make me forget about the fact that bad mothers happen in the wilderness off the sunny road, that sometimes mums don’t love their children, their mentally ill and anorexic daughters or they never said it enough when they were growing up. Sometimes they don’t have the time of day for their adult daughters. She wants to forget that I even exist. The woman who gave birth to me. The woman who brought me into this world. The woman who took me to psychiatrist who studied in Vienna and thought I had schizophrenia.
He was gentle. I remember that. He was open, vulnerable and insecure. I was emotional, vulnerable and inhibitory. He was hurting. I was hurting. Wounds are sometimes the most precious things in the world. They make the world beautiful in the end. See. Even a wreck can be indescribably beautiful. He didn’t touch my face. God, I hate when they do that because it spells a closeness, an intimacy that was not there before. Married people can be the loneliest people in the world. I learned that long ago from my dad. He taught me that. He live it. He told me stories about it. Stories from his childhood. Stories about the wuthering heights of apartheid South Africa.
Sex was different from lovemaking. Love was involved in one and not the other. Decision was involved in one and not the other, preparation, planting and progress. Sometimes there were two parties involved. Sometimes sex was lovemaking. Sometimes lovemaking was sex. Sometimes promiscuousness, intimacy, experience were involved to create this incredible emotional effect. The phenomenon of lovemaking could mean everything and nothing at the same time. You could create a bond between life partners or it could be a game. A dangerous, manipulative hurting game. Promiscuity was something else altogether. A one-night stand.
Thirty something, Port Elizabeth, 2013
Thirty years old. Another birthday. Hone alone. She stood naked in front of the mirror surveying her triumph. Youth. Youth was still on her side. All the girls who had succumbed to motherhood around her from high school were losing their looks. Tired, strained, stressed out, depressed, humiliated although not all children were brats but then again not all children were angels. She pinched her skin. She was still thin. Thank God for that. She possessed skinniness as if nature possessed the world. Like a child observing the landscapes of life in rock pools.
High school, Port Elizabeth, 1995
‘How far did you get?’
‘You’ve got the Periodic Table so I couldn’t complete all these equations.’
‘Let’s take a break. Let’s listen to Shirley Bassey.’
‘Do you still have some of that wine left over from Sunday?’
‘I don’t think so. Why?’
‘We don’t drink in our house. My grandfather used to drink. I’ve never drank red wine before.’
‘Did he beat up on your grandmother? Your grandfather?’ Marc asked opening and shutting kitchen cupboards. ‘Nothing here I’m afraid. You’re out of luck.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Why are there so many things you don’t want to talk about? You are like a walking book of secrets.’
‘I like my secrets.’
‘Secrets are like open wounds. The more you don’t talk about it, the more it is like rubbing salt into that open wound. It stings. It burns.’
‘I have my scar tissue and you have yours. You know me so well. You are so wise, Marc.’ She rolled her eyes in mock-jest.
‘Why do you want a drink? Besides wine doesn’t really make your drunk.’
‘Doesn’t it make you forget that you’re lonely and sad and that nobody loves you, Marc?’
‘I love you even when you are this impossible to read and even when you are moody. I am going to put Shirley Bassey on. I don’t understand why you’re so moody today.’
‘I want to drink because I’m happy and because I want to remember this day forever.’ She could not believe it. She was happy. She was being honest. Too honest. She looked at his face.
She wanted to remember it forever. She wanted to remember what he was wearing.
‘You look funny.’ She laughed.
‘Why do I look funny?’
‘You’re wearing your glasses. You never wear your glasses to school.’
‘I still don’t understand why it’s so funny.’
Thirty something, Port Elizabeth, 2013
The geeky river of language contained in a gene pool, even the gene pool of a rock pool was a private one. Biology was a beautiful subject dedicated to laws and sometimes amusing understanding. Its wards contain compromising powers and complex, complicated chambers. She remembered a dark-haired boy she used to know. All the boys she used to know where dark-haired and intellectual. This one wanted to be a family doctor and deliver babies. He had a superiority complex but she had loved him. What does an adolescent girl do when they fall in love with their best friend?
How do they forget the wars they fought and how they made up again? She remembered most of all how they both were in love with physics and music. All she could think about now was he rich (he was always good that way, talking about financial security) did he fulfil all his dreams, was he married, does he deliver babies, what color eye shadow and lipstick does his wife wear when they go out and eat in fancy restaurants, go to functions? What kind of shoes does she prefer, heels or ballet shoes? Does she have a good pair of legs? Does she listen to his speeches, how does his wife feel in his arms when they make love? Was she a Mrs. Ramsay?
She remembered his general knowledge, his laughter and while he progressed in school he left her far behind. At the end of the day, of high school he passed with distinction while she could barely keep up with him. She did not know yet then that she wanted to write and become a serious writer, a novelist. In the end, she became a strong swimmer. Today she was alone at the heated swimming pool. It was a beautiful day. Her arms were branches, warm and brown, the texture of bright leaves as bright as her eyes. The water danced and rippled around her. She felt a sudden anguish when she remembered Marc, her first love, her best friend.
Then everything went pale (the colour of the day). Everything went blank. There was a silence.
Then there was a tunnel notched into the blunt shadows of her subconscious. She began to swim and forget at the same time. The sky was like a blue atom above her head flowering like grease in breakfast pans across regions in nations across the world. There were a million clouds in the air. The ether was a white spot. The day was fluid. There was no wind to snatch tangles of her hair and twist it into a state as she cooled down after her swim. Damn those anglers! What a life? As if to say, they were free and she was not. As if she could never be, free.
Engraved on her skull was a blueprint, a school of thought of Johannesburg as she had seen it in the light. The winter light in its streets, its alleys outside of the club. Sunlight glaring. Glinting over skylines. Illuminated. Hinting at the experience of feminine sexuality up against a rough. About the morning after. Do you see that in films or only the heroic protagonist wearing the clothes that she had worn to the nightclub the previous night? She should drink. That experience would be good for her. It would help her to blend into the crowd. Fit into the maelstrom of society. People would say to themselves, men in particular, ‘Who was that girl?’
Marc had been her only friend in high school. She had never told him that she had been in love with him. In Johannesburg in her twenties, she befriended homosexuals. They had beautiful hands, light eyes, these tall Amazons. They told wonderful stories. For some reason they reminded her of Marc. Marc’s loyalty. They reminded her of how important it is to laugh, to dance, and to eat good food with friends. Thirty something and still missing her first love, Marc. Wires were growing from her head now and she smiled as she towel dried her hair. She had always had a love, hate relationship with her hair, with her ego, her lack of self-control.
The thing with writers. They never forget anything. If you are a woman, you never forget the men who left you, the men you drank with, danced with, and who shared cigarettes with you. The ones who got away.
Early twenties, Johannesburg, 2002
‘Switch off the light. Switch off the light. I don’t want people to see me like this.’
‘No, actually I’m not.’
‘Okay, so you’re half-dressed. That was fun.’
‘That was what you would call fun.’ She was sad. Kaput.
‘You’re so tense sweetie. Here, let me massage your shoulders. I have to park the car first. It’s not safe out there this time of night. Never know what you might find out there out on the street.’
‘Don’t do that.’ She wanted to say. ‘Don’t leave me out there in the cold. Invite me in. Into your house, wolf in sheep’s clothing. Do your worst. I’ll still wake up brilliant in the morning.’ She thought to herself even though she knew it was dangerous thinking.
‘It’s late. Do you want me to drop you off somewhere? How much? How much do you want?’ She could not believe what she was hearing.
‘You’re not serious, are you? How much? Do you think I’m a prostitute?’ Do you think you would just leave me out here on the street to walk home in the dark?’ She felt her hands starting to shake. Shark. Coward. She started trembling all over. If was capable of this, then he was capable of anything. He was capable just as much of doing bodily harm and not for the first time, she was frightened.
‘Easy there. Quiet down. I still respect you.’ He laughed then and she felt dirty. He put his hand on her knee. ‘Honestly I still respect you. I had a really nice time, and you?’ He laughed again.
‘Did you lose something? Your innocence of the manic-depressive world around you?’ That was a dig at her now.
‘I’m sorry if you were expecting roses and moonlight. Coffee for two after the afternoon rush in a quiet place. Get out of my car. I’m tired of this. I’m tired of your mind games, lady. Go home to your mother. She should have taught you not to get into a man’s car in the early hours of the morning after a club empties out.’
‘My mother doesn’t want me.’ She wanted to scream in his arrogant face with its sharp features. A face that she thought beautiful in the moonlight. It was still a beautiful face though. The tone of his voice had changed.
‘Oh excuse me; I thought you wanted the same thing that I did. I thought you wanted a good time. Didn’t you know that is all that men have on their brain? Sex. If it is not sex, it is the chase or pornography. Get the joke? There is no joke. This is a man’s world and I’m educating you about a man’s world.’
She thought to herself once upon a time Marc, you were my Louis Macniece, my Philip Larkin. You were nothing like these men. She thought to herself. Brutes. Gigantic and flashy brutes they were.
Thirty something, Port Elizabeth, 2013
The day. Poetry sublime. Symbolism wasting away. Uncertainty all around her. Status and power in the men around her. Limits. Limits. This had always been, to all intents and purposes was her survival kit for mental illness. The sea.
Alex Seifert is a Creative Writing Student student at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. He is enthusiastic about sharing his creative ideas and stories with other people just to see the sheer amount of joy he brings to their faces. Being previously a member of his high school Drama Club in his home state of New York, he knows first hand what its like to share a story with many people. He hopes to one day become a successful screenplay writer for television or movies.
Heist at the Art Museum
“Good evening. We are with the local police department, and we are responding to a disturbance within this building,” Leo said into the speaker.
Inside the building, the security guard buzzed them into the museum. When Leo and Dan entered the building, they found that it was decorated and filled with many beautifully designed portraits. The interior was neatly kept with a few red velvet rope barriers in front of each painting. They approached the guard’s position at the front desk entrance.
“You disabled the security cameras and motion sensors, right?” Dan asked the guard.
“Not a single one of them is still active,” the security guard said.
“Good, now you remember the plan, right?”
The guard produced a roll of duct tape and handed it over to the tall police officer. As if by sheer instinct, the policeman tied the guard with the roll of duct tape.
“By the way,” The security guard said. “They recently installed silent-”
But before the guard could finish his sentence, he was silenced with duct tape over his mouth. The two officers escorted the tied-up guard over to the bathroom and placed him inside one of the stalls.
The officers approached the portraits on the wall, eyeing each and every one of them as if they were sizing hogs up for slaughter. They smiled brightly now that they had their eyes on the paintings that they had planned so hard to get.
“Jackpot?” Leo asked.
“Jackpot,” Dan said.
“Stop asking questions?”
They removed a whole manner of paintings from the walls, such as self-portraits of famous artists, contemporary pieces, and many more artistic styles than they could count. Dan smashed and tore apart the frames around the paintings.
“Shouldn’t we cut the painting out of frames, like in the movies?” Leo asked.
“Nah, it would take too much time,” Dan said.
After a moment of deliberation, Leo decided to do the same as well.
“I can’t believe our three weeks of planning and prepping paid off,” Leo said.
“Have I ever let you down?” Dan asked.
“Well, you did get us caught for carjacking after you smashed the car window with a sledgehammer.”
“But now we are professional thieves.”
“This is our first heist.”
Dan stops smashing the paintings and gives a sigh.
“That’s why it pays to bribe the security guard,” Dan said.
“Fair point,” Leo said.
The both of them go back to smashing frames and ripping paintings out with their bare hands.
“So, what are you going to use the money for when we finally pawn these things off?” Leo asked.
“Honestly, I’m just going to hang some of these on the wall of my house for when some of my visiting pals come over,” Dan said.
“Don’t you think people would get just a little bit suspicious, Dan?”
“Leo, my good man, I’ll just say that I got them at a pawn shop for a reasonable price.”
“Okay, that’s actually a pretty decent alibi, but what will you do with your side of the profits?”
“To be honest with you, I’m going use the money to buy myself a sweet new house. Nothing too fancy.”
“Sounds good and all, but what will you say when someone asks you how you bought it?”
“I haven’t figured out an alibi for that one, ironically enough.”
“Well I hope you come up with one soon because it’s both our necks on the line.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll come to me eventually.”
“It better come quick, because we are pulling a world class heist here.”
“Isn’t this place just a local art museum?”
“It may not be the Louvre, but it’s the best we’ve got.”
They rolled the paintings up and put as many they could carry underneath their armpits, unaware that they just ruined incredible art by doing this. The two art thieves made their way to the doors with their ill-gotten gains, all the while, stumbling over the remains of the painting frames.
“Thanks for helping us out, Marv!” Dan said.
“Shh, would you keep your voice down?” Leo asked.
“Oh, come on, like anyone is going to be around at this hour.”
As they opened the door, they were greeted by the sound of wailing sirens, flashing lights, and the boys in blue surrounding them in a wide perimeter. The thieves dropped the paintings instinctively as the real policeman surround them.
“They recently installed silent alarm sensors, didn’t they?” Leo asked.
“Without a doubt in my mind,” Dan said.
The officers closed in on the perpetrators as they raised their hands and got on their knees.
“We’re going to jail, aren’t we?” Dan asked.
“No, Dan, we’re going to the carnival. Of course we’re going jail!” Leo said.
Both of the robbers were handcuffed and led to one of the police cars.
“Hey, Leo,” Dan said.
“What is it, Dan?” Leo asked.
“I’ll bet you fifty dollars we end up sharing the same cell together,” Dan said.
“Make it a hundred, and you got yourself a deal,” Leo said with a smirk.
“No, thank you,” Dennis said. His fingers were locked together and clawing at the backs of his hands as his knuckles shifted from pink to white and back.
“Fine, more for me,” Judith said. She pulled the ashtray toward her, with remnants of the last guest’s drag still there. She flicked open her lighter, igniting the end of a smooth and sweet Marlboro, and settled into her seat outside her hotel room.
“Are you sure you should be smoking? What with your…” Dennis said, gesturing to Judith’s torso.
Judith took a deep drag, blowing the pungent smoke into Dennis’ face. He coughed and wiped at his teary eyes.
“My what, Denny?” Judith said. Her eyebrow raised as she waited for her brother, now showing pit stains in the heat.
“Your…baby,” Denny said in a low whisper. He leaned in, eyes darting back and forth, as a rabbit would look for a hawk.
Judith let a chuckle escape before her smile returned to . She flicked the cigarette over the ashtray, and she raised a glass as ashes hit the cheap La Quinta plastic. She stared at Dennis, letting the chuckle hang in the air.
“I’m still getting the abortion,” she said.
“Please, Judy, don’t.”
“And why not? You want to keep it?”
“It’s not an ‘it’, Judy,” Dennis said.
“Well it’s not a he, or a she,” Judith’s jaw clenched tight.
“Especially not if you go through with killing it,” Dennis said. His peachy face grew red in the heat.
“You can’t kill what’s not alive yet,” Judith placed the cigarette in her mouth again, fingers shaking. She closed her eyes hard, cigarettes tasted better like that.
Dennis stood, sending the chair back, and thrust his finger at Judith. His face shifted to a snarl, nostrils flaring. The words he wanted to say were kept back by his thin lips, puckered into a resignation. He curled the finger back into a fist, and let his arm drop as he walked to the door, and into the air-conditioned room. He sat on starchy sheets and reached into the pocket of his creased khakis for a bottle of benzodiazepine. He unscrewed the cap and cupped two chalky tablets into his mouth. He swallowed hard, exhaled soft.
“You know Mom and Dad won’t approve of you doing this,” he said. His head hung to the floor as he rested his arms on his knees.
Outside, Judith flicked more ashes off her now half-burned cigarette. She brought her cup to her lips and let the bitter-dry wine wash away the smoke that rested on her tongue. The dry air tickled the hair on her neck as it wisped past her and carried an ember away.
“I know,” she said. Her eyes followed the ember as it twirled in the air, “They haven’t been a fan of a lot of the stuff I’ve done. This is just another disappointment to them. But they’ll come around, like the always do.”
She watched as the ember cascaded to the concrete and burned itself away.
“They have to.”
“They won’t. You know how they are.”
“I don’t want to cut myself off from the family-“
“Then keep the baby,” Dennis said. His words quivered, the tears in his eyes welling.
“-but I will if I have to,” Judith said, her eyes on the dying ember. More of the tobacco burned away, more filter left than paper.
Dennis turned to face the doorway, adjusting on the uncomfortable mattress. With a quivering lip, he said, “I don’t want to lose my sister. First, it was marching in the streets, then it was moving all the way out to Denver. Now…this.”
He stood up without a sound and walked across earth-tone carpet to rest his arm on the doorsill.
“You’ve changed. So much.”
Judith finished her cigarette, rubbing out the burning filter into the ashtray. She tipped the glass back and let the drops of wine trinkle out. She raised herself up, walking into the room and past her brother. She slipped on her heels by the front door, grabbed her coat off the hook, and slid her key off the cupboard. As she threw the empty cigarette carton into the trash, she looked back at Dennis, who no longer leaned against the door.
“One of us had to.”
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“This the place?” asked Jay.
“Yeah this is it. Just park over there by that light post,” said Sarah from the back seat.
It was early in the morning. The fresh dew from the night before covered the grass and trees making them shine in the daylight. The sun had just begun to rise and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There was a low hanging mist that floated above the ground. Sarah and Jay were the only people in the parking lot this early. Jay turned off the car and tied his shoes while Sarah got out of the car to stretch.
“Man, this sucks. I was really hoping that we wouldn’t have to do this ever again. But here we are, in the middle of an empty parking lot at seven in the fucking morning,” said Sarah, talking to Jay through the passenger side window.
“You can thank dad for that. Makes one, two, maybe thirty bets with people he shouldn’t be betting with and BOOM, instant debt.”
“He owes us big time, Jay. I was really starting to enjoy a normal life for once,” Sarah said, getting in the back of the car.
“Speaking of, how’s Henry? I haven’t seen him in a while. You two doing alright?” Jay put on these black biker gloves with the words “FUCK CARS” written across the knuckles.
“He’s alright. Got drunk and tried to put his hands on me the other day, so I had to teach him how dumb that was by smashing his head into the counter. He apologized when he was sober and said that it would never happen again. So we’re good. How’s Sasha?”
“She left me. Said I was too protective or some shit.”
“The hell does that mean?”
“Beats me. Guy was looking at her funny so I walked over and broke his arm. I guess that makes me ‘too aggressive’ or something.”
“That sucks,” Sarah put her hand on Jay’s shoulder trying to act sincere. “If it makes you feel any better, if we weren’t related and stuff, I’d fuck ya.”
“Thanks sis. Oh, before I forget. Try not to kill anyone this time. Last job you ended up killing the entire bank staff.” Jay took out his pistol to check if it was loaded.
“Hey, it’s not my fault. The clerk had it coming, going for the alarm when I specifically told her to stay there and not move. Dumb bitch.” Sarah started to assemble her submachine gun and took out her pistols to clean.
“And I get that. It would just make my life a whole lot easier if there weren’t any bodies to maneuver around. Get me?” Jay took out his shotgun and loaded it, one shell at a time.
“Yeah yeah, I gotcha I gotcha. Speaking of killing people, are you going to be able to make it to the Christmas party? We’re throwing it at my place this year and mom needs to know how much wine she needs to buy.”
“If everything here goes smoothly, then yeah, I should be good. How many people are coming this year?”
“Let's see, there's you and me of course. Mom and dad, Henry can’t come, Vinni, Joey, Clara, Tony--”
“Wait, Tony’s gonna be there? I thought he got locked up for assaulting some dickhead.” Jay took out his ski mask and set it on the dashboard.
“He was going to trial for it, but the only witness ‘disappeared’ a day before the trial. If you know what I mean”
“Good for him. He wouldn’t make it in prison anyway. Too skinny.” Jay opened his door and looked back at his sister. “You ready?”
Sarah looked at him with a big smile as she cocked her SMG. “Ready.”
Jay nodded and got out of the car. The two of them started to walk across the parking lot toward the bank.
“You know, for someone who doesn’t want to be here doing this, you sure do look happy to be back in the game,” Jay said, grinning.
“What can I say? Normal is nice and all, but it just aint my style. Too boring. Ya know?”
The two looked at each other and laughed as they opened up the doors to the bank and donned their ski masks. Sarah fired a few rounds into the ceiling. “Everybody, on the ground! This is a stick up!”
DR. DAVID MOKOTOFF
J.B. STONE/JARED BENJAMIN
KORI FRAZIER MORGAN
K SHESHU BABU
LOIS GREENE STONE