There’s a woman reading a book in a museum while imagining she should be cleaning house.
There it was. The thread of a winter’s bone communicating the royalty of flowering suffering, the dangers of it while I lay sleeping. I awoke as if from a dream. The woman with hair like silk had not left me, not left him, her family. I took to gardening like voodoo, growing spinach like Mozart composed his music. Blood stings like a wasp, dragonflies draw near, so does sleeping, sleeping it off and the articulate words. Stubborn ghost that I just can’t get rid of. I was a woman under a lifetime of dirt, sun and touch where heaven meets earth’s paradise. Never have I seen such poverty in a town of mines, borne of flame, grit, coals, dark light, goals and dreams caught in ears. Such drama. Tender is every burden masked and unmasked, is flesh, the image of Christ and the origins of wedding cake. There it is. Nearly fifteen years ago. The affair. The matters of the heart. The man and a guarded woman, child in her belly, an orchard prospering like a constellation, the Milky Way. I got in the way.
When someone has broken your heart what do you do? You come home, you clean house.
I wanted to know if you still think of me, dream of me, the elements and dimensions of our relationship, with one eye open and the other shut as moonlight and your soul killed me. I try and not think of your cold touch close to my ice heart. Dark blooms as sin suns. Scorched violence so early in the morning is not becoming. My thoughts are becoming darker and darker. Where do people go, where do they come from (swimming with the fishes)? The glare of the brightness of it was like an illness. It is easy to blame the hunt, the red chakra light seeping through the woman’s physical body. It has its own relevance, silence, compulsion from whence it came and its own opinion. It was as sane to me as the day I realised he would not, could not let go of his family’s life. He had white hands. A veteran’s eyes. At night he would open my veins, true blood, spilling it into the lake that covered Canada in my heart, it would hiss like a flap, pressure building into a force of torture, illness.
Women know about abortions in Johannesburg. You can go to a hospital or a private clinic.
Down the winter road came people walking past me more damaged, and serious than I was. I pulled my scarf around my neck tighter, balled my hands into fists in the pockets of my coat. The moon people I called them with stars in their eyes with their celebrity hanger-on style, their exposes that I can’t fathom, nor understand. I detest it in my world, in my reality. I watched a man out of the corner of my eye on the opposite side of the street with his pose. His Hitler moustache. He looked sinister. As sinister as the double life in the history of Germany. I switch off all the lights when I leave the room. Hit the repeat button on classical music. I am mystified by the onion and all of its layers. The thrill of the knife in my hand as if I am going in the for the kill. Its intricate patterns will be no more like the married man who seduced all of me at twenty-two boldly, bravely who found me bright, capable, extraordinary, exceptional, and brilliant. Of course he doesn’t remember tragi-comic me.
In a house filled with books from top to bottom, in layers how can you ever feel wounded?
I never believed in diamonds, furs, the monthly maintenance cheque, finding love after Mr. Muirhead, wifedom and children, being a mistress beyond my thirties, religion and church. Men can teach a girl many things outside of the bedroom. They can educate them on grief, sacrifice, manipulation, mean smiles, standing solitude, music, desperation, loneliness, self-help, rejection, the adult game of motherhood’s throne and even though they are barking mad at you their words sound as simple as a tree leaving you to think where do these petals fall.
He taught me primarily, how to cry in the bathroom and that the Immaculate Conception is not theirs. A family is only perfect in a photograph. They’re discreet about sex, romance, death and being dysfunctional. Do the Munich sheep in winter feel the cold as the sheep on farms in post-apartheid South Africa? I only believed in hitting the repeat button to hear the spiritual madness of classical music over and over again. Muirhead taught me that.
For a long time I didn’t feel anything, no love for anything green that grew nimbly.
I dreamed we were perfect but the flesh at my wrists was calling me, the shark teeth of a razor blade. There’s no welcome mat at the door for people here anymore. I am a shell, purified through ritual, through ceremony, sometimes a dazzling thinker, sometimes a child in a fairy tale childhood continued standing on the shore facing the emerald hypomanic Monday ghost of a sea. Jean Rhys dances. She dances her heart out on the stage but she knows it will never be enough to make up for her lost childhood in Dominica. The rolling hills and green feast of valleys ahead of her. Her wounds are not yet evaporated. Disturbingly so they entertain us. Tragedy. Freeze. Closer. That door to childhood is shut forever. And we both believed that love would save us. Tenderness in the dark that would chill us both forever to the bone. He was the enemy. The thief. Women writers. Watch out for them for they flex their muscles sharply, collect their day’s work, creativity and spirits in a warm bath.
Their brains are like crumbs, cuckoo clocks and the think tanks of war poets all inseparable.
They say, ‘I am turning over a new leaf, destination anywhere collaborating with transport, and people.’ They keep time and routine operating with shocking maturity and a brilliant clarity of vision like any great poet, great thinker would. Oh to move without any sense of direction, to think only pure thoughts, of rituals and nothing else but then again there is the mocking, terrifying and informed needle, the doctor in her white lab coat (who exactly is the rat here), the merry bunch of student nurses, the mansion, the doll house, the swimming pool, the library, the teenagers with their liberal mannerisms, romantic eating disorders, tik, marijuana addictions. Alcoholics everyone by the time they turned twenty-one I predicted. This was the next phase of my life. Loss, breathing lessons, physical science for matriculants at twenty-two and tongue. Every day at Tara the air had a curious oppressive ring to it, the texture, the awareness of the sun. I could not function extraordinarily anymore.
I had to manage being silenced, pray at night that the footsteps in the corridor wasn’t a ghost.
North America wooed me although I couldn’t accomplish anything anymore and think straight. My writing room is quite comfortable. The room is quiet and receives a lot of light, the room is bare with just a few essentials. My writing desk which I can’t do without and my bed pushed against the wall. It’s a small space but it is my space. If I want to sleep, I sleep. If I want to read, I read. And I have left the Johannesburg people and the Swazi girls swanning at St. Marks High far behind me. The air was filled with sweetness in Swaziland. Bad memories are bad for you, they’re wasteful, starve you of goodness and intrigue. Good memories give you stories, allure but they’re also quick to ambush you, quick to forget. Mantra, meditation or prayer? He needed to explore the world. I didn’t. He had a collected detachment. Friendship ended and a great suffering began for me. He needed to be the curator of his own museum. The light went out of my eyes, so did the world’s moon, the innocence he touched.
Cry for your children Africa, not me, cry for courage, pray that your sins will be forgiven.
And so my life began with my father and my mother in Port Elizabeth once again at twenty-two with ripe figs and children in a post-apartheid Rainbow Nation African Renaissance kitchen. The fig trees were slowly dying in the backyard. We would go outside my father and myself and stare up at the stars in the polluted sky (we lived on the industrial side of town) as if the stars were divided into districts. The intricate lines on his face did not bother me, every ripple, every wave multiplied. He was still ‘daddy’ made out of the sight of grit, stupid gossip and distraction pulling him in every direction now that his first grandson was born. The sleeper. Ethan the three month old cherub whose name would have been Heath or Ambrose. Babies do not run on electricity. They run on milk feedings not pasta or films that Tarantino directed. And so I began to feel again. I began to feel love again. You can never let go of the past completely because it has made you the person you have become.
There’s the smell of love coming out of our kitchen that hasn’t been there for years.
Love, passion, empathy, it has influenced me in some way, I have been its slave even though I haven’t gone swimming with dolphins yet or gone to Starbucks on Wiltshire Boulevard. This is a family made for eight. This was a family made for five once upon a time and then we were four but now we are eight. Eight is a wonderfully elegant number. Eight plates, eight knives, eight forks, eight glasses. Pots cooking away on the stove, fragrant meat, this house is a home again. And I adored this marriage almost as much as I adored studying history in school. Old shoe. Old shoe. What to do? What to do? Wait for it to dissolve, dissolve, dissolve but then those who live in poverty will have nothing to live for. I recognise them by their old shoes. They drink water like there’s no tomorrow and possibly retch it all out of their system anyway because they’re starved to death, scared to death just thinking about where their next meal is going to come from. And it’s not focaccia, chicken and it’s not spaghetti.
Is the glare of poverty, disillusionment; is this a test God, my assignment, my grand purpose?
My sister tells me she stands atop buildings in the Johannesburg Central Business District to take pictures of sunsets over the skyline and the rooftops of other buildings. For a beginner she is not bad at all. While either people dream of London, Thailand, India, North America (Florida and New York), Cancun, Mexico she is ready to book the plane ticket, get a visa and pack her bags. My sister is the wedding photographer. She takes pictures. Once in a while she takes a break, talks to someone who has taken an interest in her, her friend calls it ‘love at first sight’. She wants everyone to be paired off, to drink sparkling wine, to compliment her on her dress, to talk about my sister’s speech at the reception at Thorny Bush a self-catering game reserve in the middle of nowhere that the bride’s parent’s own and visit twice a year over weekends but my sister is having none of that. She is friendly. She is always friendly but if she’s not interested she’s not interested.
‘He can’t take his eyes off you.’ The bride says. My sister just rolls her eyes ingloriously.
You see he isn’t the first. My sister wears ivory and rain in her hair. She has golden hands, is light-skinned like my mother (that Germanic, St. Helena blood in her I think) and her palms are a-glitter. I remember how we used to feed the chickens biscuits in my paternal grandmother’s backyard, eat ripe figs, pick as many as we wanted, could carry in our t-shirts. But it was an acquired taste and as children we didn’t very much like the taste of it. It was a strange fruit. The seeds tasted like confetti on my tongue. We would split them in half and almost stare in awe and wonder at them because we had never seen a fruit like this before with a beautiful white flower inside that looked like jasmine. But we ate it in front of her because we loved her. I loved her hands; she had beautiful hair, a fine collection of hats for church, her cooking, and her roast potatoes after church on a Sunday, and the pickings of her Sunday lunch. She loved making soup for us and wholesome nutty homemade bread as she welcomed us from school in the afternoons. She loved watching us eat, couldn’t take her eyes off us as we did.
But now that door is shut to her forever.
Short fiction by Abigail George
Image: Neal Fowler