I have often spoken of death.
Sometimes it comes as a loud scream, a big deliberate bang, but sometimes it’s eerily quiet, like royalty in their element. And then there is the earth in which we physically fold our bodies, throw dust on it and pay our respects or the ash that we hold in our hands. And then when the family gets together to eat, to dine together, to break the bread, there are many things that I suppose they deliver, that they release or not. My head underwater is the only place where I can drop all these things. Here there is no echo, nothing to distract me, I evaporate like smoke. And it’s the only place where I find God. It is not the falling rain, the serotonin threads, the dopamine, the electrolytes that grow in my head, the nightmares that come to me in the middle of the night that worry me so much and the disease.
His skin was red, orange and green, it tasted like butter. A mango is delicious from the first time she tastes it. I tasted my first mango in Swaziland (all that goodness came with its warmth, that sweetness on my breath, juice on my clothes, sticky fingers, but shadows must meet somewhere and all I wanted to see was London). I remember the mangoes you kept for me until I came home from school (you put them in the fridge until they cool, the orange flesh strips). We had avocado on toast, or French toast with fresh coriander leaves fried in creamy butter or hot dogs and fries the way only you could make them where Swaziland was my home for a year. You died before your time, my second mother. Your pale hands, your dark hair and as you got sicker with more weight you lost but you were still beautiful to me. The leaves tremble and rot in autumn, they go round and round. You were my shining star among all souls. I miss you epic every day. There is a loss that comes with the breath. But the stranger in the ghost house has no voice. It does not speak of self-help, of useful life. A double life, red dust, dead parakeets, sweat running down his wife’s back, Liberace’s madness and despair. Something is not anchored but it still works wonderfully, it is productive. It’s called family and the awareness of coming home, a flag was planted here in the southern wasteland where a genocide occurred, there’s whiskey in a glass, an afternoon cocktail. Books that are a sanctuary. An Eric Clapton record is playing. The red dust in this county doesn’t talk about self-help. There is a suicide. A death in a river. And the police have come. This is August: Osage County.
The police arrive in the middle of the night. Like the plainclothes detectives who came to my house in the middle of the night when my brother took a knife and stabbed my father. Nothing romantic about it. About the attack of death, about it reaching you like a thief in the night, a cat thief, a cat drowning in a bag with its kittens, that’s how I felt like a drowning visitor. I saw weapons that night I led a double life. I pretended that I didn’t see or hear anything and inside I was numb. When I saw my father’s blood. He had an oppressive quality like everything in my life so far. The drugs refused to work. So I took more and more of them and slept all day and all night.
The double life of romantic jasmine. Live, die and live and die like people. I can talk and talk and no one will be listening in on my conversations, eavesdropping. On the winter road I met men staring at the goats. Men who were good dancers or American soldiers who took German lovers during the war. Men who were good actors, some were heavy drinkers in my mind and philanthropists. The knife was sharp. It hit the air over and over and over again. And then it was anchored in the skin. I didn’t scream. I was a Scout knot. I ran in my sandals to the neighbor’s house as fast as my feet would carry me. Outside, the air felt cool as rain. How I wish it had rained? But it didn’t rain that night and they called the police.
There is no romance in death. Hair and meat are released. And yet Dad stayed on his feet, unafraid. My brother was prancing around all of us, grinning, grinning slyly, tall, he was eating his cake and eating it too. He pinned daddy to the bed with his arms like shark teeth. My mother had run away in the dark. I was left with grievance notes, a stem, and a route to follow. A blossoming bleeding heart making waves, beating fast. It was Christmas. But there were no presents, just a wintry path to follow.
To hell with that if I never fall in love. It’s a case of much ado about nothing. I have lost my mind and have recovered in hospitals. Once again anchoring to reality in recovery. I don’t have a brother and I don’t have a sister. I have no mother and I have no father. They live their own lives, so they have fun, selfish people all over the world. While they keep me safe in Pandora’s Box. It’s a box full of romantic villagers of my own creation. What a comfort they are to me. I am an orphan on the family path of Okri. I am Nabokov and Kubrick’s Lolita. And soon I’ll be forgotten like the breath. The furniture a party of sex, romance and death. Damaged, damaged, damaged but I mustn’t talk about it.
It will be death for me and I must live without the disease, the stain of trauma a while longer, sit on my throne, pick up bones like arrows falling from the sky. Curiosity has killed me. Men have killed me extraordinarily. But I have nine extraordinary lives and I am left smiling like the Cheshire cat.
This is the brother I’m supposed to love. I no longer admire him. I feel nothing for him when I remember that night from hell. Hunger House. House of hell, madness and despair. If I had a gun, we’d all be dead. I cut the onion, seduced by its layers. And I cry for the lost, gems each. There are diamonds in my eyes and I blink back. My youth, my youth, my youth and there is no ring. No ring on my finger, all those wasted chronic years. Now he is Lucifer handling the gate to the wards of hell. My beautiful and dear child, what has become of you?
The secrets we keep are committed to memory. They are lessons about the needs of the people around us, a lesson in obedience, sometimes even wisdom. And it takes some bold work for us to realize that the future is bright when we are sometimes challenged, when we have to brag. And make it a ceremony. There are deep ingredients that go into making a spaghetti bolognese. Family is of course the first priority. Then the butcher, mint from the garden and limes for the cocktails. Footsteps on the stairs and laughter scribbling in the air.
Perhaps avocados were the first fruits (food for thought) in the Garden of Eden even before Eve was made from Adam’s rib through the maturation of a human soul and a flowing vortex. Sun and moon. They are miraculous angelic beginners every day. Daughters nicknamed after Jasmine and yesterday, today and tomorrow. And then, as if waking up from a dream, the day begins.
Head underwater. Pushing himself silently from the pool wall, turning around after turning. This is where I find my sanctuary, my second home, and solace from the outside world. I’m not like the other girls. They’re all younger, slimmer, and confident even though they’re still flat-chested and flirting from where I’m standing. Head underwater again. I pray that tonight won’t be the house of hell again. I’m watching movies, reading books, wiping my father’s ass (there are no secrets between us). We talk about our past lives, our nine lives, love and its measure, how the devil made work for idle hands during apartheid, during the Group Areas Act, Nazi warlords, the Rwanda Hotel. We talk about the women in his life, past and present, the first woman he loved and lost, and the extent of it. I get distracted. He gets distracted and I get up to make cups of coffee, lukewarm coffee. We are talking about Valkenburg (the mental institution in Cape Town where he lived for a few months).
The first social worker she met. This is all for the book I’m writing. Walking in her footsteps. Night after night I make a casserole and we both sit down to eat at the kitchen table. Walk, drag, walk and drag. Sometimes he sits outside with Misty the dog in the sun. He’s forgetful, he stutters, he has a short attention span, but I guess memory loss comes with age. Last night he wet the bed. Some people would scoff at this but when you’re knee deep in someone you love, intimacy is nothing, acknowledging that they’re getting older is everything. I have become an old woman overnight. Suddenly I have gray hair, the wisdom of a lake, a slight tremor in my hands, I suffer from anxiety and I can’t sleep at night. She calls me in the middle of the night. He needs me and that teaches me that I’m not cruel. I am a woman now. Something has replaced the darkness in my life. I have discovered the stem of meditation.
His face, his journey, the journey of my life in this house full of people and tears. My mother does the laundry. She’s not such a terrible woman after all. I wish all women could be like her. Difficult. Made of sacred entrails, an insatiable instinct, almost a clairvoyant instinct. She lives like a nun and she eats like one these days. She eats like a bird making soup after soup after soup that only the three of us eat. As an adult, I fell in love with the excellent goodness of barley and the healthy protein of lentils. Split peas remind me of eating a home-cooked meal at my paternal grandmother’s house in the evenings. My paternal grandmother’s hands were beautiful. She withered because she suffered from arthritis, dark brown. Warm with the texture of the sun and with freckles. She was my moon, my moonlight and graceful. She offered us bowls of soup with home-baked bread that tasted more nutritious and filling than the expensive ones she bought from the store. My mother promises us all a long life if we drink herbal mixtures.
Dried rosemary, tinctures, tonics, homemade green smoothies with parsley, spinach from our garden and coconut milk. With my head under water I reflect, meditate, breathe easy. I swim with the fish, schools of them in this pool. Light a candle in my heart when I drink water. My brother makes stews with his homegrown carrots and corn. All I can do is spaghetti. Frieda’s spaghetti. It’s so cold now. The world feels so cold. I feel as if Iraq has descended into my thoughts again. Sarajevo. Rwanda and the children of northern Uganda. I am a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I must be strong to carry on, stay brave, act brave. Sometimes I can listen to Tchaikovsky. My father has taken to his bed. He has depression again (à la William Styron). I wonder if John Updike ever suffered from depression. I know that Hemingway certainly did. What about JM Coetzee, Radclyffe Hall, Vladimir Nabokov, Kubrick? And the filmmakers, the writers, the poets who were heavy drinkers?
But I leave that in the hands of God for your comment, all those signs. I am old before my time. I am an old soul. Complicated, empty vessel, envious of beauty like any woman, of youth, of the girl, of children in childhood. My babies are my books.
And sometimes I feel dead inside (not numb or cold). As if he had a subconscious mind crossed. Like he’s lame, pathetic, stupid, and has one blue eye. Blue like the sky of a wild Saturday and the other green. As green as a mocking sea, a mocking school of fish going on, surfing, swimming on their own survival skills with their world occurring in horrible dead blue silence.
With the fingers of heaven so far from them.