I always wanted to be a good wife.
I am a little girl again when I see my mother kiss another man on the lips. I only ever saw her kiss my father on the lips. This man’s name was Uncle. My mother promised me a book, and a bar of chocolate, and any flavor of ice cream. I waited in the car. The door opened and my mother embraced Uncle while he ran his hands up and down my mother’s back. I remembered Christmas. Of how much my father adored my mother and would do anything to make her happy. It was really my father who taught me how to be a good wife.
‘Stop. Someone who knows us might see.’ she said. My mother blushed. She was standing on the steps of Uncle’s house.
‘Who will see? The child can’t see, and in any case she won’t understand.’ Uncle said messing up my mother’s hair, and her lipstick.
‘Children are bright. Children are curious about everything. I don’t know. Well, all I know is that my daughter is bright as well as curious.’
‘Children are curious at her age about love?’
‘Is that what this is?’ I pretended not to see but strained to hear every word.
‘Love.’ Uncle said again. ‘When will you come and see me again?’
‘When he is working or away on business or at a meeting? When I run errands, or go shopping?’
‘Do you have to bring her? This is my territory.’
‘Yes. She is my daughter. She has beautiful manners.’
‘I am not her uncle. She called me Uncle once.’
‘She is a very polite child. She is also a very bright child.’
‘She looks at me funny. I just don’t like the way she looks at me when you leave.’
‘She’s too young to understand.’
‘Are you in love with Uncle, mother?’ I asked my mother when she got in the car. She didn’t say anything for a very long time. Uncle went inside the house, and closed the door. I looked across at her face. She had a dreamy look on her face. She had closed her eyes. She took my hand, her eyes still closed and said to me, ‘You are too young to understand this. The effort of love, of having a family, running a household, having daughters, having a husband, being hurt, and falling in love. A man who understands you like no other. I love your father but there are things in this world that you will only understand when you are older. When you become a young woman. Do you know how to keep a secret? Well, today you are going to learn how to keep one.’
We never spoke about it again because I believed her. I believed her because she was my mother, and I loved her, and I thought she was a saint. Well only ghosts can read lips, have flashbacks from childhood, and have the remains of the hours spent with the love of their life. I thought perhaps it would be best if Uncle would go on a long journey to Africa to shoot lions. If only a lion would eat him. Swallow him whole. He would be in the lion’s belly while I decided his fate. Perhaps he would wake up one day and not love my mother so much. I would make a wish, and sleep with my leather-bound bible under my pillow. I was not an adult. I was a child. I already knew what ‘sleeping around’ meant. I already knew how red-faced babies were made.
She said I was her daughter, and so I kept her secret. Hitler came and went, and so did the war and still I kept her secret.
Love, where are you? Are you in heaven? Are you in a paradise or where the souls of the lost and found find each other? Have you found yourself in the afterlife, or the hereafter of the astral plane? Or like me are you a ghost. Do you find yourself haunting the places, and the people that you knew before the war? Do you find yourself riding trains with cows, trains that were once used to transport people to the camps? Once you were a boy making model airplanes, flying a kite on a hill, tobogganing down a snowy slope in winter, building a man made out of snow. I will never feel heat. You and I will never feel brave anymore. Brave in the sense of facing the world out on our own. There is too much golden light here. Do you have eyes to see? Do you have hands to feel? In a normal reality you would have to strike a balance, but it wasn’t like that during the war, or even before war broke out. I don’t have a life outside of writing books, and reading them. For a long time I have felt both this internal, and external struggle as a writer. What is my purpose? What have I sacrificed? The answer to both of those questions is everything.
I bit into the love of it all. Into the love story. Nothing has tasted sweeter. Seemed more significant to me in my life. I bit into the story. The bittersweet history of the pomegranate. You had your testimony. I had mine. Your laughter has an extraordinary soul. You are perfect. Always were. I study your profile. I contemplate you. Perhaps children or a child in the future. Every illusion. Sacrifice. Our growing intimacy. You are mine. All mine. All mine to worship. To compete against. To share my joy with when it comes to that. You are my constant companion, and advisor. Everything has fallen away. The death of everything. The mud season. Dead rotting leaves. Violence, and brutality in nature. You are as big as the sky. You are noble, serious, kind, warm, sincere, funny, and sweet. I can share my world with you. You are beautiful with your tangled wreck of hair. I am always aware of you in your absence. The history of the universe’s big personality began with you.
Startled out of its reverie. Refreshed, audacious. It was a novelty. Everything is possible now. You have put your mark on me, this ring. I have put my stamp on this relationship. Running your household. You are nonchalant. You, the anthropologist in this relationship. You the photographer as clairvoyant. When people talk of the holocaust, they will not talk of us. There were thousands. There were millions. There were those that escaped. There were those that remained behind. You could play the piano. You loved jazz records. You loved me. I have a library to keep me warm now instead of a body whose face is streaked with tears and that smells of the fumes of gas. It is not winter. It is not winter yet. It is the same old same old where I am right now. I am in heaven. I am in paradise. I can feel the sun on my skin even though it is winter. My head is filled with dreams. I have goals when I step out into traffic. I do not sleepwalk anymore.
I do not have bad dreams when I have the memory of you to keep me company. It has been a whirlwind, I mean after the war. Getting to grips with life, with living, with putting behind that god awful, hellhole of a war. Getting to grips with the ones who were left behind. Everybody has to start at the beginning again. Put down roots no matter how hard coming to terms is. Everybody has a story. I have listened to many stories. I love looking at the stars. It is beautiful up there now. No war. No bullets. No Nazis. No guns breaking skulls. No aching heartbreak in your throat being locked away as you inhale and exhale after walking away from your loved ones. No soldier soldiering on. I wish we could turn back time. To our wedding day. To our first kiss. Our first dance. The very first moment we met. I get all misty-eyed. You were a successful pianist. Perhaps I should have believed in you more.
You loved your chicken. Now when I look at chicken all I can see is you. I can see your face. Your hands on the lids of the pots on the stove. You spreading crumbs on the table. You never complained about my cooking. You never complained about anything really. Now all I can see is you eating my chicken, praising my skill in the kitchen, and I just looked at you, and I smiled to myself. You took my hand and kissed it. Life was perfect then. Life before the onset of the war. You loved your meat and potatoes. You boasted once that you were a meat and potatoes man, and I said that you loved chicken as well. Men were either meat potatoes men or men who loved chicken. We always argued about that but never about Hitler.
Present day. You have a granddaughter. Your daughter had a daughter. She has traveled to Florida, somewhere in Germany, India, New York, and Phuket. It is present day. I am in a South African park in post-apartheid South Africa. I was not one of those kids who put up pictures of rock stars, actors, models pretty faces, bland, generic poses. I was caught by the river. The fire in Bosnia. The arrival of education. Maru, Mzi Mahola and Winston Ntshona. I wanted to be a poet. I often felt ambivalent. As if I did not belong in this world. Not the right fit. The world filled with many people who wanted to be loved. People feel alone in different ways. What is this cathartic punishment? This terrifying din. Lonely citizens. We are all case studies. Case histories. Are you my nemesis, sin? Some people are independent. Some are modern. Some are bold. Somebody else a wife, mother, lover missing their personal freedom. Then there are the suicides. Missing persons on television screens. How quickly love turns to hate. The heart growing bitter, and it is the cold that is sweet. God, well sometimes He ceases at once. It is winter in the city. Nothing can be more beautiful than seeing how the afternoon light hits the page. It inspires a relationship with the divine. A man and a woman in love. It inspires children. For a sister in that suffering. You were brave, spirited. You were the brave one. You never wrote me long, boring letters. You never complained. You were never the complicated one. You never cried or locked yourself away. I do not know why I felt like nothing. A ghost in your life. I am helpless, hopeless. Yet still devoted to you. You are silent. I strain to hear every word you speak. I am so very tired of life, of illness, and yet I have not even begun to live, live without it. You are a stealing beauty in a minority group. A glowing gem. A diamond in the rough. All my life I wanted to be like you. Wished I would look like you. Talked like you, acted like you, but I was rough like a boy, and cursed like a boy. I wish I could swap stories with you. Gossip, write poetry like you. Did not completely understand the words sibling rivalry until I was much older. Did not fully understand that word ‘competition’. It first began when I was in high school. Much preferred Anne Sexton to Sylvia Plath. Much preferred the ordinary people in Helenvale to the bourgeoisie. Boys like him making me feel all angelic. Understanding the measure of loss in these times is not an easy thing to do. It observes calculations. Solutions. Where does my love come from? It comes from my heart. My soul. There is a new footprint now. For this continent. Country after country. Those ravaged, those war-torn, those with the new-born democracies and a female president. Those with the refugee camps. I go to church. Do you feel the same? All loved up. On the other hand, sad. Mournful. Knocking on wood. I trace my fingers over a lover’s initials. Of course, I understand it is all over. Watch leaves fall. Feel the wind floating on air. Once I understood words. Cinematography, editor, focus groups. Now I have become a fan of Jackson Pollack, cinema, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. My computer screen. The delete key. I see traces of the kingdom of God in clouds, in rain. I rub my fingertips against the rough bark. Gazing up at the blue dissolve. I try to convince myself I made the right decision to come home.
I walk in circles. I found the mountain. Everything was painful to me as if the world was awash in snow with every footstep that I took. Ghosts can walk. Ghosts can talk. The sand is warm at first under my feet then wet where the ocean has washed it clean. Inside I feel raw, set free. That this is meat country. Meat tea country. I love you. I loved you. Then, and now this is my fractured song. You are like a boat on a shelf exploding into view. Can you hear my voice? My heart is open. When I was a child I did what I liked. When you were a child you did what you pleased. Our thoughts were those of a child. The blue skies are bright here. Paradise. The warm sun on my skin. The light blinding, exploding into view. This is life. Once I loved you. Now there is only the exchange between pain, and sorrow.
I have no wish to be a medical anomaly but I am. Are there other words for ghosts?
Everything in the media today is charged with emotion, materialism, the haves and have-nots. Is post-apartheid all there is to it? The struggle legacy of South Africa, the liberation, apartheid. Of course there is tension. Observation, and surface tension. And my life? What of it? The sea mocks me. I remain somewhere in Germany, but I am also of this world. I am in love with beautiful things, with things of this world, with things, but nothing can replace you. The thought of you.
It is a mud season out there. It is quiet out there. It is a world filled with poetry. That is how I came into this world. That is how I will leave it. Whenever I go to the sea, I try not to feel deleted, or erased, secretly evaporated from this planet. Not yet anyway. I have my stories. I have my lined up dominoes in a row. All my ghost stories. I put them lovingly into boxes using memory work, innocence and fury. I put a spell on them with my incense stick. Pandora’s Boxes.
To get to them I have a code. Secret codes sewn into sides like braille. I am calm, peaceful and collected. I have to be. Some people may call me young. Some people may call me ‘girl’. Some people may call me old. All I see is the doctor’s with their cute personality, their dreamy eyes writing me out a long prescription. I do not know what to feel anymore. I am alive that is what counts, right. You got it right. The family, the children, the swimming lessons, raising kids on that sunny road.
Kind, and beautiful you. There was someone else in the picture. Pain was in the picture. Pain is pain. I cannot fall into the trap of feeling it break the loopholes of my heart or my spirit. I cannot wish it away. It is here to stay. The illness. The renal impairment. They have another word for it. Chronic kidney disease. I am just another walking, talking disease. I will never get tired of angels though. The angels that hover. First, there are the angels. They are angels in their tunics.
They come to shoot down medical history and make as if you are a medical anomaly. You are going to make it and they bash their Bible. Say a few hallelujahs. Talk to the doctors as if they are someone important too in your life. Showing up in the shadows when you least expect it. I can only be the best I can be and not let it break me. I see roses in the rain. The passion of the imaginative coming together with the chaos in this world.
I see all of us juggling history and our perspective of reality. We are all swift, aware of our self-worth and dazzling. We shine as bright as candles. We are moths drawn to the flame of another’s trapeze. The future is in the art objects of our hands. We can hurt each other bad but as time goes on, we discover beauty in our tears, in the measure of loss that we made stone gods of in the past.
For the most part our language is empty space. Enough empty space to furnish a room with and that is why we need personal space. To remind us that we have thrones. That we have been through those wars. I watch them write out the prescriptions with their fingernails that look manicured thinking to myself that when I was a young girl I expected paradise when I closed my eyes.
Life gets so heavy especially when it is a waterfall. I must learn how to fly now. Spread my wings and surrender myself even to the wet green of where the ocean meets the blue skies stormy bits. Where the river meets shark teeth and the velvet intimacy of the waters. I dream up worlds with my fingers and my hair. Most days I listen to the blue slates of stormy skies, summer’s end and the autumn chill that is always on my mind.
Keep me safe. I will go underground with you. I will defy gravity with you. That is the kind of person, no wait that is the kind of woman I am. This is how I begin each day. With hope and prayer and Coldplay playing in the background. Once in childhood every fall was kind of waterfall. The symphony said bough down, so that is what I did. Feeling the cold, feeling a kind of winter that did not want to let go of me, my limbs began to hurt like feeling an echo in the paradise of heaven.
In the end, that is where I landed up. Heaven as account of my good deeds. I would go on marking my good deeds, making my mark in concrete. Stop using your heart as a weapon for war, my mother said. I should have listened to her. Fear told me. We sing ‘Happy birthday’. It does not mean anything to us yet here we are singing our hearts out. I kiss the smooth apple of the baby’s cheek. He smiles at me. Does not know where we are going. I want him to stay. I want him to stay with me but I did not carry him in my womb for nine months. He belongs to another. I still feel I owe him an explanation.
Then there is the kitchen genie. The genie’s shark teeth knocking on the old world with a great appetite. Fire ancient under unbuttoned starlight. Heaven’s tongue. Naming sunlight. The open window sings. The dark leaf settles. I study their cartilage on the evening kitchen table. Precious celery stems. Land of thirst. Putting new experiences in boxes this parched summer.
Silent comrades. For poets that I love. Restless infringing. The soup’s salute. Tangled hair.
Tangled fringe benefit. The shoreline stops there. Underneath the lampshade there is a monster season of lightning. A thunderstorm. A floral mouth. Mum feeds the spirited baby. He is a poem beneath this hot climate. A fork makes an excavation in her garden. The oven is on grill. I watch her put on her mascara as if she is going out on a date.
I have fish fingers and hot tea for breakfast amongst an absent-minded storm. There is a chill in the air. A birthday sunset. Lonely rain. Hours land in a flurry. I wonder what the colour of laughter is to an artist. The protective shield of a child’s innocence. The intellectual capacity of Alice Munro, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, a princess, a prince, and a scholar of trivia. Do we all follow the golden rules of the power book?
I think of the bride standing in the church before she gets married. Before she sees her bridegroom for the first time. I think of the arguments my parents had in front of us, and I seem to withdraw from that world again. I think my mother had all the power. She still does. I had mouse feet. Mouse hair. I could not move. I could not think. In the end we are still flesh and blood. Widespread texts of flesh and blood. Me, and my competitive, tribal siblings.
I am left thinking of baked beans on toast, French toast, breakfasts made of marmalade, and honey, molasses, sticky fingers caught in the biscuit tin, the peanut butter jar, the spiritual classics that J.D. Salinger wrote, the history of water, the psychologist elsewhere but not the real now, and here. It, like most of everything in my life so far has been a show. There is a psychiatrist in the show.
I have not yet begun to write about love. About the passion of being a mother. About unfinished things every one of them. You see I have not returned from the wilderness yet. The patterns of history. Those dead things have interrupted my life’s work. It comes from childhood, from youth. A nation’s enthusiasm for armies built with guns, armour, and ammunition on my back, and child soldiers. The dream-keeper’s angelic cousin’s romanticism. I am getting around to getting older.
Distance has begun to grow around us. She is the one who has led a sheltered life. A monogamous life and how strange that life must have been. A burned, empty, vacant soul spirited her away from me. Buried a secret life, a bitter life not like a man. A man always lives an exciting life because these are exciting times we’re living in. He leaves his wife behind at home refusing to be told what to do all the time. His goals come first. She is perfect. She must be perfect. She must have the perfect mouth. Her smile must be pasted on perfectly. Perfect bird with broken wing. Perfect, lovely one. Spirituality keeps her going like a cuckoo clock.
When God met Sarah my grandmother I could hardly breathe because I was so sad, a child.
There was just a gnawing need to escape the innermost reality. Is it a mistake to long for a mother – that flame? The flame of the mother’s love-light. I watched my brother and felt the texture of a killing. I told myself to freeze. To seize life and to grab a hold of it. A life in which I searched for the depth of things. I watched a boy and a girl become a man and a woman. They brought a child into this world. Music became like water.
It had its own confessional weight. Purpose and motherhood comes with great sacrifice. I hate this blue. The colour of the sky today. It is a pale white like snow descending or the white hair of the elderly (what else is white, what else is depressing and cannot nurture, cannot speak, cannot speak truth). Wet paint, paper, pills (capsules of truth, knowledge), sweet powder, all come with power, plates, that can be shattered. Teacups that must stand for years behind glass. A family’s crockery, horses, unicorns, tiaras, diamonds, and sometimes people too.
I always wanted to be a good wife. Put me away into the wilderness. Uncle had a moustache. Mother was a saint. There was always grown up parties with wine, and cake for my birthday parties. Father adored her, in the same way I was adored by you before the war. The holocaust came. The holocaust and went. I am in need of a radical wasteland, a novel reality, and my night is a dark night filled with miracles. These streets are filled with the smells of dirt guided by arteries of water, the sharp ‘suicide’ of the beer bottles, bottle caps, and brilliant shards of jade glass.
This has been such a long journey. Life still seems to go on, and on, and on. What makes an introvert a genius, decay savagery, the process of the progress of a tragic woman, and was I that tragic woman, and was I that savage study of a tragic woman? It is a powerful drug, egoism.
When I was a girl, I read about mania, and psychosis in books at the university. Philosophy interested me. Nietzsche’s ‘Being toward death’. It made me feel as if I was standing at the edge of something.
To be surrounded by literature, literally all those words, was like being thrust into a voyage into eternity. My hair is the wetlands. Even ghosts must have their diaries. Even ghosts through a metamorphosis through the faces of our hope, and suffering. Every ghost is a beautiful stranger to the surroundings and the possessions they once knew so well. This image of healing rain, of starting, and ending the journey, of bittersweet anguish, of damaged foundations, of spontaneity rolls over and over inside my brain. The image of your daughters teaching their daughters in post-apartheid South Africa fills my lungs with joy.
Even in war there are moths, butterflies, insects, and fish. Even in war the sea is a beautiful dream.