yesterday I drowned a rat, or rather
failed to rescue it from the rain barrel,
when that is the singular thing it needed.
had it been a mouse, say, or a shrew, a vole,
or a seriously misdirected mole, any rodent
cousin with anxious paws like a little
brown widow who’d lost her handbag, fine,
then I’d not have hesitated to offer it a twig;
but not a damned big rat, there I draw the line.
In school Biology we’d opened one with a
scalpel and I’d looked among the damp
glistening coils for some part of it to blame
for the Great Plagues, for the pestering of flesh
from corpses in Wars, the scaly tail looking
like the pickpocket implement of someone
who rigs races, sells stolen cars, takes good
watches off drunks in bars; then puzzled
all night about which part of me harbored
such callousness. Had places been reversed,
my thin-toed feet scrambling useless on a
course of sinking leaves, would any rat have
cared to look in me, for an organ of remorse?
That was the name given to her by Joanne, our youngest sister, who surely resented her the most. She might have been Mildred or something, and her surname is lost to me, but we knew her as Aunt Millie, and somehow she managed to waddle around on a pair of grossly saturated legs, rather like sandbags, and which defied any laws of physics. She wasn’t really our aunt, but had been a kind neighbour in Kroonstad when our father was growing up, especially when he hid on the roof to avoid the wrath of his own irascible father. Being childless herself, she often gave him a refuge, plus sweet tea and biscuits.
In 1963, we had recently moved into 909 Church Street – a large double-storey house in Arcadia, Pretoria – and were relishing a new sense of space, when this portly stranger suddenly came to live with us along with some heavy furniture, crockery and a budgie. This meant that we four sisters had to squash into one room again, as the idea was that Auntie Millie’s railway widow’s pension would help to pay our rent at a difficult time. She also gave Daddy a lathe and workshop tools that belonged to her late husband, Harold, who had been a train driver. It wasn’t long before Dad had sold all the tools to a neighbour for some cash. I don’t know if Aunt Millie ever knew about this betrayal; but on the other hand, our mother gave her a warm home for the last years of her life, and kindness and respect.
Millie’s main pleasures were a daily box of Peter Stuyvesant, a glass of sweet sherry in the evenings, and letters from her relatives. She had to wait a whole day to do the crossword in Daddy’s Rand Daily Mail and Evening Star, as he needed time to finish the horse racing columns and plan his spread for Tattersalls. Being a railway widow, Millie was entitled to a free pass once a year so she always used it to visit the relatives who had never offered her a home as we did. But apart from that, her Saturday treat was to don a hat and gloves, catch the bus down Church Street and have cream tea with scones at Garlicks in central Pretoria. I don’t think Millie had friends in Pretoria but that didn’t make any difference to her weekly outings. And now I ask myself – how ever did she heave herself on and off that bus, never mind the steep steps to get up onto to railway coach for her annual train ride? It must have been a sore trial to her that we lived in a double-storey house. We all heard those slow gasps as she negotiated one step at a time, going up or down.
Aunt Millie soon adapted to us, her ’new family’, although it was not so easy for us to accept her old lady ways, especially as she sent us hither and thither to fetch pills, cigarettes, crochet work or crosswords which were always in another room. Joanne had the worst time of it and was not allowed to be cheeky. It was painful to watch Aunt Millie heave her waterlogged weight out of a chair, onto those misshapen tree stump legs. She also doused herself generously in a cloud of cloying lilac perfume. Wheezing or coughing, she left a trail of sweet-stale air and cohorts of upended stompies in ashtrays around the house – especially on the glass shelf above the bathroom basin. “Damn drowned submarines,” muttered our father.
But one afternoon, she must have been dozing while an unextinguished stompie next to her bed smouldered silently. It stood upright on the chest of drawers pushed hard against her bed, dropping hot ash onto her crocheted pillow case. Then it slowly burnt an acrid hole through the feathers and smouldered deep into the mattress. Even a corner of the bed base and the wooden headboard began to char and smoke.
A foul cloud suddenly billowed out of her upstairs window, and we heard her shouting. Rushing into Aunt Millie’s room, we saw the bed was on fire so, with one mind, my sister and I shoved the glowing mattress out of the window. We dragged it on to the grass and sprayed it with the garden hose, but the foul rubbery smoke spewed out unabated. So, we phoned the Hatfield Fire Brigade – merely to ask for advice as how to douse the stinky embers ̶ but they said they would send someone. They didn’t say they would send a monstrous brigade with flashing lights and siren jangling all the way up Church Street and into our modest driveway. Within minutes, a whole team of fire fighters in shiny black uniforms and hats were aiming heavy duty hoses at a ludicrous single mattress on the grass. We teenagers cringed in embarrassment as curious neighbours and passers-by gathered on the pavement to stare at the sight, and at us. It was all over when Daddy came home. One of his obsessions was extreme safety consciousness, and he fulminated if wall sockets were switched on when not in use. I can’t remember how he reacted but I imagine he must have been incandescent with fury that she had almost burnt our house down. And Millie would have been overcome with tears, distress and abject apologies. I have no idea how she slept that night on a blackened bed. We must have found an old spare mattress in the garage, so life went on. There were fewer flotillas of submarines for a while.
Like us, Millie was confused by Daddy’s rages, and she learned to keep well out of his way. But she became very fond of our mother who valued the extra household income and an adult presence for us children while she was at work. Aunt Millie didn’t endear herself to us, as she would reprimand or boss us, Joanne in particular. “Ag fie,” Mom would say when we grumbled about heavy-winded old Fat Legs, who competed with us for our mother’s attention at the end of a long day. I suppose the poor old woman had some charm, because, by Jove, she always responded warmly if one bothered to crack a joke or chatted with her. On the day of my matric dance, she gave me a tip to soften my hands by rubbing them with a spoon of sugar and cooking oil and then washing with soap. I haven’t done it for years, but it worked the other day after a muddy session in the garden.
Millie also had a litany of repetitive stories from her Kroonstad days – or Croonstard as she called it, trying to make dressing up for the Sunday evening promenade past the shops sound more like Paris than a boring dorp in the Free State. ‘Poor old sausage,’ Mom would say. ‘She means well.” And she reminded us how kind Millie had been to our father – as if that made it any better. For her part, Millie sometimes made us supper – her signature dish was ’hedgehogs’ or pale frikkadels wrapped and stewed in cabbage leaves, which we ate without relish. Cabbage poultices were part of her arsenal to treat those vast appendages that hardly looked like legs at all. Gargantuan old lady stockings and damp bandages dangled from a coat hanger at the bathroom window, and were also used to wrap pawpaw skins over suppurating ulcers. We children were not the most compassionate creatures, and spoke rudely behind her back, mocking her stock phrases,” My word! “and “By Jove!”
After her husband Harold’s death, the love of Millie’s life was a little blue budgie called Winkie. “Kiss me, kiss me,” she would croon as he sat on her shoulder, and he would dance from side to side, or nuzzle her ear. “Pretty boy, pretty boy,” he chirped repetitively for hours. I think a cat got him at some point and she was bereft, keeping the empty cage on a stand in her room.
Millie was away on one of her holidays when I was writing Matric, so I had the idea to camp in her room. It was musty and redolent of stale tobacco, but it gave me the quiet and privacy for last minute cramming late at night and again before dawn, without disturbing my sisters in our ’dormitory’. Somehow, I got used to the old lady smell and I slept in Millie’s charred bed until she returned. I regret to say that I also scratched through her chest of drawers looking for mottled chocolates or furry peppermints to keep me awake. Leaning against her blackened headboard gave me a different perspective on her life, and how she came to be part of our lives, and helped our parents to pay the rent.
Millie moved house with us from Arcadia to a plot at Mooiplaas, and then to Swartkoppies, and Mom made sure she always had a sunny room. Mom was as good as her word. She took care of Millie to the end, through all the chaotic years that she lived with our family. Meanwhile, I fled to Wits University and never gave her another thought. In one of my rare phone calls home, I heard that Millie was in hospital with bronchial pneumonia – or perhaps it was heart disease. The details are missing from my consciousness, as was my presence at her funeral. When I came home for the holidays, Joanne had appropriated Millie’s room and it was different. Life went on, and one by one, we all left home, taking bits and pieces with us, items that were useful, or which we were attached to.
Recently I was looking at the heavy chest of drawers that I appropriated when Arno and I set up home together, and I suddenly recalled that it used to belong to Aunt Millie. I could picture it in her room, housing her embroidered blouses, shawls, petticoats, corsets, stockings and stale peppermints, from when I had holed up for the duration of my Matric exams. That chest of drawers has been part of my own household for fifty years, and I seldom give a thought to poor old Fat Legs.
“Ag fie,” as Mom would say.
My first experience of life was death. Mind you, it is not as if I remember, but I know the story told often enough of how my mother, my baby brother and I crossed a street and were hit by a truck. My mother is Nkelani Deceased. Her features do not exist in my mind, but her body is the shape of all the models I drew when I wanted to become a fashion designer in my teenage years – a dream long forgotten. I imagine that Nkelani had a head wrap and a wax print cloth as a skirt tied at her waist with two cords perhaps, if she kept some weight after her pregnancy. Her top is from the same six yard piece of fabric she must have received as a gift for bearing a second son. She looked beautiful on the day she died, carrying the blessed one on her back, with his hands and legs clutching her sides, yet resting in the same cloth. I was holding her hand, not yet looking left and right, but enjoying the fast moving buses and cars, the hooting and shouting. It was before dusk. There were traders packing and people walking home. There was a truck and there was us.
I wake up. I am inside. Metal clanging. Something old. A jeep perhaps. There are men dressed in khaki green. I cannot hear what they are saying. There is a body laid down. I have tears in my eyes. I have pain all over. My insides are burning.
It is dark. There are lights. Some strange faces come close to me. Lips move. There is the sound of a beat nearby, and a voice singing.
I am in a car.
I am in a house.
My mother speaks to me in a language that I later learn is French. She tells me: If you don’t speak French, you cannot speak. My mother is harsh that way, but she carries me a lot. I am not on her back like the little boy was on Nkelani Deceased, but I am on her hip. I am light with a round tummy. Sometimes her body is cold but it is always warmer than that of the other mother. I do not know how I got here, but it is the house next to the plot where the shack is.
I now live at La Villa Ingrid. The house is named Ingrid for my sister. She is 8. I am 4. We met when I was crying and she gave me biscuits. It is before we were sisters, before her mother became my mother and her father became my father. I have an aunt with red hair and blue eyes who caresses my back and my arms and puts me on her lap. She is the warmest. I managed to walk up the stairs to reach her and I put my hand on her knee to bring myself closer to her body. She started to shout: ‘Food, food. Somebody bring food. This child is hungry!’ My tummy is still full from lunch and it is still round because it has always been like that. I put my head on Tata Danielle’s leg. I am happy when I can touch her.
My aunt’s husband died. I know because my father is crying.
‘Papy, why are you crying?’
‘Because Frans is dead chérie’.
‘He is dead?’
‘Yes, he won’t come back. We won’t see him again. Never.’
I cry. And I say ‘but you, you must not die. If you die, I want to die too.’
Frans Van den Broek’s passing brought another awareness of death to me, the one that would make me choose death rather than life and I was not yet five.
My eyes are moist now and so are my father’s. He is entertaining two couples. He tells the best stories over meals. Lunch today is a delicious canard à l’orange that his wife Tanya has cooked. The table and chairs have ivory inlaid, the tablecloth is cream and the cutlery is perfect. There are two people from our past and they know the story. The other two are new which is why my father tells it. They seem to be charmed. This is the way it always is with our visitors and even among ourselves. Our houses could be in glossy magazines, and we say beautiful things in a polite manner. We keep the dirty emotions hidden. Dad and I both have eyes shining with tears and I wipe mine then look away. He tells this story to prove how much I have loved him, always, ever since I was little. He is not wrong. But this is the story he chooses to tell. The one I speak of often is about the soldiers who picked up Nkelani’s body and took us to an army base. She had no face but she was my mother and then I had another mother and a father and a sister with white faces and that is why I need to explain who I am.
I am Philomène Luyindula. Until I was twelve, I thought I was Philomène Lasoen, but I am called out of class one day and when I return I am Philomène Luyindula and I feel ashamed of it. I follow the school principal to his grey office where he tells me to sit on a big chair that twists to the left as I put my bum on it. His hair is neither blond nor brown, it is short. He walks with his upper body bent forward as if he needs to get to his office before his legs get there. His white hands show me a page which I understand is not blank, but I cannot read it because his voice cuts as sharp as the scissors that must have given him that hair style. His words tell me that I am not a Lasoen and that I am not Belgian. From now on I am going to be called Luyindula and my father is going to pay the school fees at a higher rate, the one for the Congolese. I am at le Lycée Prince de Liège, the Belgian school in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaïre. Like me, my country has changed names twice already, but it will only revert back to Congo in 1998. As an adult I resent people who ask me if I come from the Belgian Congo. I wish people could find non colonial references for the second biggest country of Africa which happens to be right in the centre of the continent.
The principal is from Belgium like the previous principal of course. That one who used to smile at me and his grey hair had light and dark that waved gently around his ears. He always said ‘Philomène, Philomène’ in a singsong voice whenever our paths crossed. He once told me that his grand-mother was named Philomène. I like that name. I like Philomène Lasoen but now with this new principal I am called Philomène Luyindula. I do not know where one puts the emphasis, on the ‘du’ or on the ‘la’. I cannot speak Lingala anymore. I cannot speak Kikongo either, which is the language of ‘my people’. I know that I am from Bas-Congo, from the region of Cataractes and that my tribe makes me a Mukongo. It means nothing to me but that information is written on a green piece of smooth paper folded in three and it contains my other identity. I know that Luyindula Ndevolo means Think Before You Act. This is the name that Ndevolo Bibenga gave me. This is my other father. The one who comes to visit me and speaks the language that left my memory shortly after Nkelani’s last breath. Nkelani has totally disappeared except for the writing on a birth certificate with a stamp of the late seventies, that states that I was born in ‘74. After her name follows the word Deceased. No surname. For the date of my birth there is also the number 24 with the month April. My birthday has always been celebrated on the 12th and no one can tell me why.
This week has been the saddest. Maybe it was just fatigue from time elapsed, but more likely it was lack of human presence. I live alone and this thing, connection, for which I scour the earth, mostly eludes me. On a daily basis, memes make their way into my inbox, and guiltily I pass them on, feeling not much, except so-and-so may enjoy this. Ping. I send it. You too can smile briefly at the eye-masked president, or the poem by Katy Tempest. My head hurts.
The worst has been other people’s troubles when you’re locked down. No agency. Just listen on my mobile to the almost inaudible voice telling of unimaginable stresses, and comfort them in what way you can. Send another meme. Cry dryly. And imagine the awfulness. Today my head hurts because of that. The inability to help. The path alone which I know quite well. I duck the light.
Now I send virtual messages when I meditate. No clear mind here. It’s a transmission station beaming out wishes and blessings and little pleas for comfort. So my headache has served as a recalibration instrument. Irritably it scolds me.
“Enough! Look after yourself now”, it says.
And the hard hand of tension grips between my shoulder blades, sending its metallic fingers up my neck and out along the edges of my skull to the hinge of my jaw.
And it says, “Stop trying to fix: this world is not a sanctuary. Don’t expect it, then the disappointment lessens and you’d feel less rattled. Shhhh now”.
Now it isn’t all bad. I found an escape. I read this week, as I haven’t been able to for years; I read novels which have their own searing truths. But here I couldn’t offer rescue, because their fictional characters’ fates were already mapped. That helped. I cannot intervene in these novels. I simply skim forward, and know the worst before it happens. Then I can read gently with no nasty surprises. Avoid the trouble when I need to.
But in defiance of sadness, I found another escape route this week. Tipped off by a neighbour, I drove with dog to Rocklands Farm, a legitimate food buying trip. I wind up the dirt road, rattle over the speed humps and it becomes prettier and prettier, with glimpses of the sea on every bend. There are shade trees, several leafy oaks, a few nostalgically crumbling labourers’ cottages. A pretty 17th century style Cape house. After some neglected vegetable tunnels, I stop under an oak at the shop’s small doorway, its handmade sign offering goats milk cheese and eggs. And the egg merchant hurries towards me from the cottages and opens up. ‘Einstein’s eggs’ they are called, and now I discover this is Einstein himself serving me. Child of a visionary mother, he has a good business in eggs, large or extra large. I buy 18 and only realise my foolishness once home, as I can only return in 18 eggs time. I should have bought three.
Now I ask about vegetables. And Einstein directs me towards the vegetable tunnels alongside the chicken hoks, lower down the hill. He advises me to drive and I do so, stopping near the enclosure where a good many goats watch me curiously. And as I get out, False Bay opens out ahead in a way that is actually breath-taking and breath-giving at the same moment. It opens out in its hugeness, in its spaciousness, in its entirety. I can see the chain of cliffs from Macassar to Hangklip. I can see the translucent purple-red mountains etched on the horizon. I can see every slope of scree. I can see where the mountain folds, how steep it is, the little settlements lodged in the valleys where earth has weathered, leaving a shelf to build on. Betty’s Bay, Rooi Els, and more. Strand stands out like a sort of sunlit Brasilia. Crazy towers, golden in the mid-afternoon sun, distinguish themselves starkly from the mountain barrier behind. The sea is uniformly blue today, solidly blue, rippled, but not busy. And beneath it, the unseen world which I have glimpsed these last few days when dolphins whisked past the harbour wall. And I am drawn forward into that expanse, in a way that I have not experienced for so long, hungrily, mesmerised. I sit on the grass while my dog sniffs and strains at the lead.
“He wants to walk?”, asks one of the gardeners.
He is short and stocky. His name is Edgar. Serious, with kind eyes. He has noticed the quarantined dog and seems to regard her affectionately. I nod and start walking in the direction he indicates. But I hesitate on the track because it is bushy and there are broken down buildings that have triggered my caution. He reads my hesitation and gestures to me that he will take the dog. Does he think I am reluctant to walk? Has he not noticed that I too am straining at my leash? I clarify my hesitation and he leads. I follow. Accepting this kindness from a stranger who has sensed that both of us – dog and pale haired woman – want to be out there, to tramp the sand path through the sunlit bushes down the slope to where the sea opens out like enfolding arms and the wonder of the sheer green mountain slope rises behind us, closer to heaven than I have ever known. Silently, we walk to a lookout place. In warmth, we tramp back. Do all vegetable buyers get this treatment? My heart smiles.
And then the gardeners show me their vegetable beds replete with spinach and basil, coriander, the few last brinjals, some parsley, some beetroot. I surmise they are farmers from Malawi, which is confirmed by their accents – gentle, a bit sing-song, their “r’s” replaced by “l’s”. We transact. They are pleased. I am pleased. A short delay as they cut their own spinach, “for the house’”, he says, and we part with a thank you so much and appreciative nods. They close the big gates of the vegetable tunnels to keep baboons out. They alert me to the radishes that will be ready soon. I jokingly ask if I can come and weed for them, gesturing to the sea. And they seem to understand my offer, and smile.
It is difficult to describe what I feel as we drive away but the small dog on my left is panting a little, eyes shining.
The sky is angry, the wind is mad, the blanket of dust spreads in the air, heavens are crashing down breaking loose the cords which maintain them in their foundation. Confusion in the sky, the clouds are spitting fire, fuming, smoke from earth echoes the thunders and lighting from above. The war has intensified. Storms of dust follow the trajectory of the jet fighters pounding and launching bombs on the towns and surrounding villages. Flames blaze, rising from the rumbles, the magnitude of the destruction is so immense.
The ruins have replaced the old beautiful town and surrounding villages, turning them into ghost towns, a land of the dead, a paradise of wild animals and insects. Bodies are left to rot on the ruins, in open air; the lucky ones are dumped in shallow mass graves. The decay of the corpses has left a haunting odour no amount of fine perfume can eradicate.
Dogs, vultures, wild dogs and hyenas are all over the place feasting. The meat for ants, maggots, and insects is free and so abundant. The flies have found a breeding ground like never before.
Two months have passed since the war began and no ceasefire has been declared. What next? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God resides. Two weeks ago, we left the town of Musumba, our residential sanctuary. We are on the run, on a journey into the unknown destination, an unknown but hopefully safe place.
We move every day from one location to another. We cross hundreds of streams, pass villages and go through the wild forest. The group is shrinking day by day. Some comrades have given up and turned back to join the army of liberation of Katanga, some are lost in the jungle, some are dead; the mines, the shells and stray bullets are killing many more. We don’t stop to mourn. Let the dead bury the dead.
Hunger, lack of clean drinking water, malaria, meningitis outbreak, insects, scorpions, snake bites and poisonous thorns are ending the lives of many more. Death has many stings in its arsenal. A navy blue lady bag with a long strap, a gift from my cousin Genevieve on my confirmation day, is my treasure. A Bible, a note book, a pen, my family photo and my rebel card or pass are my only belongings. Same dress, a pair of shorts, a jersey, and a wrapper are the clothes on my body for months. The black sneakers on my feet are torn, but they keep me going. Limping from the injury I sustained on my left foot, I find myself tracking always at the end of the queue.
I wish for a quick death, rather than a long perilous journey into the unknown. The lice are not invited, but they become my hosts. There are ticks on my toes, and tropical bugs find a nest in my clothing, hair and body. My entire body is covered with scabies, my nails are sharp, hard, long and dirty, but I need them for many chores and for my survival.
For three days the rain pours, and the downfall turns pathways into streams and rivers. In one place the current is so strong it sweeps away a group of children. We find refuge in the rubble and ruins of an old school. Soaking wet, weak, cold, shivering, hungry, bruised and thirsty we manage to make a shelter with wood and pieces of iron sheets left from the aerial destructions.
‘People of God you must quit this place now. Run as fast as your legs can carry you.’ In his white garment, with beads around his neck and wrists, charms over his body, a hat of leopard skin on his head, we see that it is a traditional healer who warns us. ‘I overheard an informant telling the soldiers that the mutineers of the army of liberation, a group of thirty to forty people, have found refuge in the school. They are traitors, friends of the government,’ he says. ‘Don’t follow the stream, they will catch you, turn left and go straight wherever your ancestors lead you.’
Before the old man ends his sentence, we continue on the run, moving so quickly. The sun had set down. We keep moving in the dark until we are told by the leaders and the elders to stop and find a shelter nearby in the cassava farm. We are welcome to rest, to be quiet and to spend the night in the field.
We camp in the cassava fields. A fire is lit, and we warm our bodies and dry our clothes. The cassava trees are uprooted to keep the fire burning until dawn. Smoke engulfs us, we smell it, breath it and inhale it like never.
‘Abominations, sacrilege, taboo, unthinkable, confusion, curse − this is a cemetery,’ someone cries out. ‘Where is the cassava field?’
‘God of spirit have mercy! What have we done?’
No word can be uttered, no amount of ‘sorry’ and ‘forgive us’ can appease the act of such abomination. We have defiled the resting place of the spirits, the dead and the land of our ancestors.
We run like mad people. But before leaving the cemetery, the elders stop us.
‘No one steps out from this place. Come down, we have wronged the dead, disturbed the spirit and committed abominations.’
The elders and the leaders plead with the spirits on behalf of everyone who spent the night in the cemetery and made a fire with crosses.
Money and valuable items are deposited on the places where the fires were lit. The traditional healer and high priest are called to come and appease the spirits and cleanse us from evil and curses. They perform rituals and ceremonies. Then they tell us to leave the place, not to look back, to head towards the east and to bathe in the stream nearby.
On that fateful night, I spent time among the dead, in the land of spirits, the sanctuary of ghosts, I was running from death, but that night I sat side by side with the dead. I shared their tombs, resting place, but death showed mercy on me. The gates of death were closed and telling me in a language of the dead: It is not your time.
Your time will come. It is a mystery, said death to me. What is next in this journey into the unknown? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God dwells.
Charlotte, it is not your time. Go and sprout like a sweet potato.