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Brother Wolf and Sister Wren - Part One & Two Brother Wolf and Sister Wren - Part One & Two
by Abigail George
2013-06-28 11:05:15
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1. Woke Up With My Hands Full Of Leaves

Marakana and Lonmin are all over the news.

My brother the wolf guy, the lone wolf, Wolf didn’t know how to sing and how to hold down a melody between his ears. But he did like music. Every kind and when he laughed, he howled. I could hear his laughter as if the veil was lifting from his belly. He was the first person who ever taught me about issues of trust and loyalty, vulnerability and morality and giving up the ghosts. The boy in him was the purest part of my memory of him. The geometry of loneliness was built into him long before I ever reached any kind of love story, any kind of instruction on that world that dominates. Between my parents there was denial, shame, truth, separation between both of their depressions. My father’s mood was manic and my mother’s was pensive. So they would alternate. So we all lived with broody illness. She would be sulky, moody, shout and disagreeable and mostly ignore us and forget that we have to eat hearty meals of meat and potatoes rich and thick with gravy, that the meat would have to be taken out of the freezer to defrost. She would shout at my father. How he could do nothing right. Was he having an affair? Why wasn’t he a family man? Pay more attention (to her). So we lived like this, the three of us, my brother, my sister and myself for all of our young lives never daring to question it, thinking that this was the way everybody lived. Sometimes they would go out. They would behave like a couple. They would go to the movies and be like girlfriend and boyfriend. I would wonder if they would share their popcorn and hold hands. My father would write at night working on his thesis. My mother would watch television. They would be in separate rooms but you could still cut the tension in the house with a knife. My sister and I would do what my mother did throughout her life. Watch love stories and read them. We had a library. Access to books in a way other children did not have. The paperbacks my father bought in London. The romance novels mummy read. In all of this happy-mess my brother came into the world, into the exciting times of two people who had decided that because they loved each other they would get married and start a family just because they could. The lives of four people, individuals who learned the controversial mechanism of not giving in to the unstable because it would mean you were weak and vulnerable. Fathers are supposed to be charming. Mothers are supposed to be poised. Houses are supposed to be filled with joy every day of the year not just Easter, Christmas or birthdays. Mummy was stylish even when she was wearing her glasses, even when she crashed and burned on the sofa chair while my sister and I played on the floor with our dolls, reenacting the same territory, the same drama our parents had come from. Drama filled with a man having enough rope to hang himself, war stories, and a father who had another family. Children who did not have his surname though. Then there was the drama of alcoholism, clinics for stress, burnout and depression in faraway cities and a clinic and a notorious hospital that was close by. Just a twenty-minute ride away to visit over the years, the childhood years, and the years that counted the most. People stopped coming to visit and I stopped having friends come over because mummy needed to rest. At least that was what I told myself. One day she yelled and screamed, cursed, pulled the sheets off the bed as if she was a mad woman. And then I began to look for her in the books I read. I called her Mrs. Rochester when I read Jane Eyre. I watched, observed and learned. Her imprint marked me like my father’s old books and divided us forever. Sadness seeped into my home, my bones, the stars and fat moon, everything, everything. The sun burned and left a scar on my forehead. I couldn’t see it when I looked in the mirror but when I put my palm against my head I could feel it. Anger, now that was something else. It was a sharp and bright force. It came with the momentum that any negative energy came from. Hot and cold, Iceland and Hawaii and it hit me literally between the eyes. It was potent, made itself seem significant and important, as if it had any kind of real substance and staying power. But it would also vanish just as soon as it had appeared.

So I am not afraid of Virginia Woolf and of speaking of the data of her sorrow, her memory, behind the scenes of the wasteland of her childhood. Sometimes things go wrong but not today. Sometimes holding onto the videotape, that stream of consciousness thinking of the position of a dream of a man turning into dust is enough. This is my diary. A diary caught on videotape, life through a lens as I see it. I think that is when and how and why I decided to go to film school. I had all these images that I had collected over the years and stored up in reserves in my heart. Finally I decided one day that writing about them was not enough. I needed more time to compulsively declare them to the world to be the truth about what happened to all three of us. It had become an obsession. These thoughts, my goals, all the psychological heresy and games that is in my mind’s eye held down in text while serotonin and dopamine is whizzing around in my head (that I furiously wanted to fix, hold down, stick to). There is nothing neurological about preeminent death. It will come whether we want it, and will it to or not. The bluish sky was filled once upon a time with laughter, with your laughter. Your glee had never been so magnificent. All we wanted to do was live. In childhood we were tigers, mannequins, clowns, climbing trees like monkeys, aping them before an organic depression cloaked us, dealt us stealthily with blows, neglect. I abandoned you, Wolf. I know that now. We were perfect once and loveable, adorable, wacky before we put up barriers to our inner vision and dreams. Projects to build empires reside in us still. And then the darkness came, that monster, those monsters of shame and prejudice. No friend of yours or mine but it was activated all the same. In parking lots in Johannesburg I dreamt of change and freedom and love as I felt hands reaching out towards my thundering heart. I never felt the electricity of passion passing through me like a beam of lightning. I never saw trees in Johannesburg. All I saw was a city and smoke. And men and I saw them everywhere I went. I saw them sitting in cars, in peak traffic, smoking, in restaurants, with wives and children pulling on them, reading newspapers, in a glorious office space and most of all I saw them walking past me, leaving me behind. All these strangers inspiring me towards greatness like you have done for most of your life. I have to make everything up to you. It came from your childhood. Life is an event that we are always waiting for. Betrayal is an energy that happens outside of us. Comfort is being quiet, still, composed. And troubles are brewed by lobbying and being posed, poised for mistakes to happen and the awful, awful, terrible wait and see game. I watched you all my life. How you captured awareness with grace and beauty, and your creative impulse, how you let go of the past so bravely and surrendered it to the universe. My art (writing) makes me brave now, to go the distance in a way (I am the poet who writes books now). I must be brave and knowing that I feel as if my art makes me brave. We have never really talked about survival, our survival through it all. There we are on the map. Port Elizabeth. You were always a delicate child but here I am talking to your inner child and the damages we have in common. In literature, in industrial licks of prose I discovered as a youth that there is a raw and heavy burden to carry in reality, electricity and a catalyst for a reminder of change that pops up like flyers. We drink coffee (once upon a time). I drink coffee in our childhood home again. Grown up now but the land I live in is one of a thirst for wonder and entitlement. I want to rub my fingers, my clenched fists up against the elegant corners of the beautiful furniture in our childhood home. It is cold like mummy. I can still trace the holes that were kicked in the doors (they are still there even after all this time), mirrors that were broken, the bad luck of tears and crying for mummy, wanton cruelty, and malicious vindictiveness. I can still see the blood. If I pick at it, it gets in under my nails. The stain is there. It is a complex one figuring out where you belong when you haven’t belonged in the world at all, all your life really. I wish to be alone now and it is granted. I wish for solitude and it is granted. A young poet moves mountains, glaciers, season after season, and the storm that is rage, the ice in mummy’s eyes when the look of love was no longer in there for all the world to see. Good little girls never have to show their vulnerability. All they have to fight for is to wear dresses, golden sandals, look prim and proper, act like a lady (even if mummy doesn’t, even if mummy says bad words when she gets cross) and say ‘pretty please’ and ‘thank you’ and pray. Of course, pray. I was always caught between two poles even as a child (perhaps even in the womb). Where did it all begin, this road, this path, which forged this trail for us? Was it forged in heaven because it doesn’t, didn’t feel like a forever kind of paradise. In order to grow from boyhood it is necessary to have a longing in your soul; it will be a kindred spirit for you. If you are generous it will be generous to you. Why did mummy always feel like stone to the touch? No mother’s milk to nurture us. Spirit wounded of a girl child. Memory skips nothing. Time healed nothing. It only brought about a hostage situation. I was invisible as a child. Counting the paintings we had in the house made me feel invincible. Backwards and forwards I would go. 1-2-3. 3-2-1. 1-2-3. 3-2-1. 1-2-3. 3-2-1. I would laugh at funerals. I would laugh at death, all those serious faces, children holding onto their mother’s hand while my own swept me away, moved ahead of me her. Heels clicking on the polished floor of the church. I would call the children ‘Dumb’, ‘Stupid’, ‘Simple’, ‘Four Eyes’ and ‘Ears’. I could smell her sticky perfume, her greasy lipstick, and her hair that smelled of flowers. It was like a drug, a cloud up in the air, God almighty, pollen and I drowned in it all and everyday since I was born our father made himself a little bit more vulnerable and open to me. All I could see was the man sitting behind the wheel of the car, reading his newspaper, sleeping it off, sitting across from me smiling at me as I finished my ice cream. He was there. Mummy was not and I always wanted more of him. Until the day of my grandfather’s funeral when I cried and I could not stop because it hurt too much to think and to breathe and I realized what loss meant and pursuing closure. Putting a closed door between you and the past. And then I remembered there was a time when a brother and two sisters in childhood meant nothing to me. It was a growing up phase like telling stories or a pack of little white lies. Tumultuous but it was in the tumultuous past. Scraped knees in a parking lot when I was a girl with skinny legs and surrounded by girls with plaits and buns and dry peanut butter sandwiches. Sometimes I had cheese sandwiches. I always shared. Mummy always remembered our vitamins and that we had to have a dose of calcium, birthday cakes and pies, pocket money and swimming lessons. There were always extra lessons for every subject under the sun. There were always new clothes, new shoes, and ribbons for my hair. There was always money. But why couldn’t she believe that she had to nurture us too, say the words ‘I love you’ as if she meant it from the heart. There are pretty dresses hanging in the wardrobe. My spirit has been scribbled away into a wilderness system. All my life I have imagined justice. Pretty dresses hanging in a faraway wardrobe belonging to me.

2. There is no end to sadness

Sometimes the material of the dresses felt limp in my hands. I would brush my face against the folds and cry for everything unfulfilled, wasted, wished for, not granted and lost. I was not the chosen one. My love was flawed. And so I learned that there was no end to sadness. Sadness has ruined me for love, for the kind of forever granted to blushing brides and their passionate grooms going to the chapel to make that sacred contract that will mark them for life. I only know how to tell better stories. How to watch the falling sky. And when the dawn comes I welcome it. When night draws closer I welcome it. It is just two baptisms opposing each other.

Different colors, one people, the salt, light, love, mourning, thought, every brave thing, listening to the river is a joyful experience for me. If I speak openly it is only because life is too short, our freedom is too short and some of us are cut and left with a gaping hole where our hearts should be already when we were children. I said this to myself many times. This was the advice I gave to my soul. I had to experiment with love and realise it was an extraordinary phenomena and gift. I had to have guts. I had to pray most of all when I failed. I don’t want it to hurt when I breathe in and out anymore. I don’t want anymore breathing lessons, wounded impressions of loneliness. I want to live in this world as if I have a right to be here, a humane right like any other soul, any other being. I know I am ungrateful. I also know I am blessed. I hate it when people laugh at me. I hate it when people stare and they only look away after I have stopped meeting their direct gaze. I like the quiet. Having it all around me and when I do not have it I long for it. It is fragile and I am fragile. We have that in common. Now I have a vision of a girl in my mind’s eye. I can trace it back to my childhood when God was an instrument of justice. Now grown I am homesick for it. I have learned that nothing can be masked for an infinite amount of time and certainly not the pain of the mind.

Inside like a scar I have carried from a wound that has not completed healed I have this image of summer. The citizens of summer come out to the beach as they do every year. I hold onto it as if it has some value but the only value that it has is to remind me to remember that I am not ordinary. I am the chemistry found in laughter, medicine, and light. I am somehow even involved even though they are not part of the physical, the emotional me of the patterns and shadows dancing in front of my eyes.

There are footsteps in the dark outside my bedroom door, a country to call home, living in exile and a return from it, a painted house, beautiful hope, a guardian, and an Arctic woman. And everywhere I smell the bark of trees and wonder where the meeting point of strangers begins and ends.

I had never met anyone more determined than Brother Wolf. His intelligence so specific, and so powerfully woven into the fabric of his brain. I feel instinctively that his intention was always to provide, to keep sanity under lock and key, boxed in like a crack of light in darkness. He had to serve and protect. I feel that he wanted to interrupt the flow of darkness when it came, its unstoppable force and illustration, distraction and nervous, anxious song.

When I was six feet under Johannesburg I felt as if I was moving through the world and the world was a dream. I could explore the surface valiantly but my thoughts were no longer precise. I was cut off from people even though thought traffic and crowds surrounded me. In the city I found a barren wilderness, fierce people, breathed it all in, and compared myself to others. It filled me with the bitter seeds of sorrow and I felt like a skinny bird again, a child in time considering all the spiritual in nature. It is cold and I hope that soon this cold will go underground. I loved the smoke. I loved the raw smell of pollution in the air, the rubbish in the streets, the wretched poor. One way for survival in the city is to grow old (you will grow old quickly and weary, tired and hurt from what you experience). Wisdom will fill you from your head down to your toes as you observe everything around you; the weight of life and suddenly what seems familiar will no longer feel familiar to you in the way it once did. For survival lots of things will have to happen to you. You will have to lose that pure innocence about you. You will not age gracefully. You will forget and there are sometimes things that you won’t forget.

For some people another person’s misery is their ministry, and they believe that that is their journey and mission that they have been called up to act upon for the rest of their lives. Family should be close and a brother and sister closer. From there I always wondered where the dead go when they die. Is it enough to remember them in passing, lay flowers on their grave, or to let go of the thread of how simple life is when compared to the complex nature of physics, biology and mathematics.

The cemetery is paved with the flame of memory. I was always the girl, the woman who stood alone in the rain with a bunch of flowers in her hands. I can say this now. I am no longer opposed to it. In fact it makes me feel emancipated. I’ve turned the pressure on its head and called it something else, vitality. All my life I have felt connected to nature, the fog, and fields, the farms that belonged to my family. There were always faces of aunts and uncles at funerals that disoriented me because I could not place them. And I would say like a mantra as I stood at a grave or while I attended a wedding, ‘To all the ghosts dead or living from my past in the spirit of writing this I let go of you all.’

As a child Brother Wolf retreated into sports and it was a luxurious time for him, being an athlete with his limbs taking on a life of their own. But for me that period in time glittered with falsehoods, formidable isolation and neglect. Writing had not become my religion yet.

Sometimes I could touch the silence that I held inside of my heart. It didn’t have an ego (this shell made of glass) and it didn’t tell me to go to hell. It didn’t damn the precocious child in me.

It was from him that I learnt how not to compare myself to other people and to question whether or not it (raising comparisons) was an experimental construct from youth or the life and death of miracles taking place in front of me. Or was it the natural coexistence of human nature next to an animal one? There is something poetic, something about the futility, the loneliness of the latitudes and longitudes of shore life. I longed so much for it that I began to write about the ocean that I had come to know as a child. I would spend a day on the beach with the warmth of the sun sucked inside of myself. Port Elizabeth is not Athol Fugard’s Port Elizabeth anymore. It’s become a moral dilemma. The youth have their own song, ambiguity, and their own fired up intensity about politics and the police. We are still digging for bodies that went missing years ago during apartheid. We are still digging for bodies that went missing last week. Life and death and always the heartache of it and the genuine moving sensation of pain that comes with suffering has become as natural as breath. In my shadow stood lone Brother Wolf and in my head I found the source of therapy in his song. When he sang the blues (of course he was just playing his radio in his bedroom but that was just his subconscious talking, driven to face reality, the truth, all the letters in l-o-v-e, all the words, the sticky fingers of  ‘I love you’) it reminded me of the ocean. How tranquil it was just to stand there in front of all its majesty, to observe the color of it, how it just seemed to go on and on and flow into infinity. It was magical and transparent all at the same time. The people seemed to be all patchwork and one-dimensional. When I took off my glasses they didn’t seem to be defined anymore by their limbs. They just seemed smudged and blurry effigies. Children bent on building castles, standing precariously in and around rock pools while fishing in them. I haven’t had an organic idea for a long time and by that I mean a fresh and new idea that had a sensibility of place and size. Everything happens in the city. People happen upon each other there. I did not see how I could love like our mama had loved us with her maternal instincts. Her love would come as a feast served up on plates instead of a therapist. Mama was formidable, a thinker and a doer. Her flesh felt like a hook, line and sinker, something brutal, otherworldly. I became a bird without wings, without a cage, without vital seed. In the light of the day was Mama’s garden and the extraordinary work she put into it. Mama liked to kill every thought of the hard work that I put into anything, every collective thread that I wanted people to remember me by, my cultural manifesto, and the legacy of my creative gifts. But Brother Wolf taught me that perfection comes with hard work and separation anxiety. He never spoke in so many words. I had to watch and learn from his fixed and focused psychosomatic drive to achieve, to be brave, to see phenomena and vision indiscriminately where others could not. I have come to this beach today to remember, to see, to think, not to wallow even, not to drown as I once did with my head inside the development of a manuscript, divided siblings with their hearts raw, anguish bleeding figuratively into the contact they had with other people. In Port Elizabeth I learned to battle, sometimes weeping about the state of the nation and its upheaval and then came Marakana and Lonmin, the gold and platinum mines, workers striking for more pay. It had to affect me like any poet, writer, teacher or intellectual.

I tried to help. I put the potatoes in the bag as quickly as I possibly could before anyone in the house could see me. It could be a meal. The first and last meal the family could have for the day, the week. Bless them. I hoped they would bless this food to their bodies. So many people came today to the door. Hungry and tired, their feet sore and covered in blisters from walking so far. Where did they all come from I wondered? How did they live? Oh, I always wondered that. What were the dismal circumstances they found themselves in and why couldn’t they tear themselves away from poverty and need, want, desire? Why were they treated as if they belonged in a leper colony and not society? I could feel the sun’s rays penetrating my fingers as I held them up and studied them meticulously. These were my mother’s hands. I could see the bright halo of the sun. I felt warm and bright as if a tidal force of energy was moving through me in a rush. It spun through me as effortless as a wheel, constant and I was buoyed with hope.

Mama knitting, always knitting, and at the end of the storm in this house this is the crucial debate. She is the spectator left to drown in what her son, (my anchor and shield) Brother Wolf does not say. The only proof of all our worldly possessions lies in the material, as the soul hovers between earth and the eternal feeling, the intense call of paradise beckoning, on the threshold of a heavenly home. For all of my life Brother Wolf was home to me with his brown eyes, brown hair, brown skin in his clean blue jeans and white shirt. The two of us were a family coming together in a deep soulful exercise, of restoring peace in the home.

3. Wren’s nostalgia for Swaziland

The jungle is out there somewhere but there are no monkeys hanging on trees only vast green fields. Everything around Wren was art. Every day felt like summer and when it rained it felt like summer rain. There was even a poetic energy and beauty about the hail when it fell. But it was only a year and when the year was over she went home with her tail between her legs.

Home. The first thing that she knew was wrong was when she could not sleep. She was drained. She felt exhausted, tossing and turning trying to rest, frustrated yet she could not sleep. She would be up all hours of the night. Insomnia made her feel as if she was living in a glass house.

4. Wolf and Wren’s secret language

The television was on in the family room. Wolf liked having the television on in the afternoon even though nobody was watching it. He was eating a packet of crisps and wiping his salty fingers on his jeans after licking them one by one. Wren stood in the doorway sipping a cup of lukewarm black coffee.

‘What are you watching Wolf?’

‘Nothing. Just some soap from another country. No subtitles just voice over. Lovely ladies though I can’t understand a word they’re saying. Mostly talk about sex, sexy language, who is sleeping with whom, who is having an affair, that kind of drama. Well, that’s the gist of it anyway. The usual stuff. What do you want? If there’s something that you want to say or that is on your mind then just say it. I don’t have all the time in the world like you do to do absolutely nothing all day of everyday. I have some errands to run. And make it quick.’

‘Wolf, what will happen to us one day?’

‘We grow up.’

‘And then?’

‘We live.’

‘Maybe I should put it to you in another way. What will happen to me?’

‘You have goals, interests, so live, Wren, just live. Your heart is as big as the universe. Something in the world must feel familiar to you, like you’re coming home.’

‘Wolf, what is love? What does that feel like, you know, falling in love because I have no clue.’

‘I don’t know. How do you know things, how do you write? How do you know that there is a God above you and you can talk to Him and He listens to you and sometimes he answers your prayers and sometimes you think that He is indifferent to your pain and suffering on earth.’

‘Wolf, I don’t know what love is. I don’t know how to love.’

‘Wren, you don’t love yourself. You don’t have an ego but you have the intellect. To live in this world, to forgive society on a daily basis you have to have love but most of all have empathy.’

‘Wolf, why does love matter so much?’

‘It’s what makes the world go round, Wren. Why people get up in the morning, go to work in the morning, make them breadwinners, have families, have children, put food on the table, go to the beach. In one breath people want to be stable, normal, happy, have laughter in their lives, forget all their troubles, woes and mistakes, put that all in the past. They want to be carefree. Some women and sometimes they even happen to be the fiercely intelligent ones want to bring life into the world. They want to be mothers.’

‘Wolf, I don’t want to be a mother. This most feminine force to create something so fundamental to the human condition, well I don’t think I understand it at all. I don’t think small children would understand why a female would choose to write, to live with solitude and misery for company above having tea parties and picnics in the garden. Waiting in the car with a thick book or a fashion magazine while the kids go to swimming lessons, or going to school plays and concerts. I see the grandeur in writing and solitude but I don’t think that they would.’

‘All children need is love.’

‘But for us (in my head I am saying ‘for me’) Wolf a mother’s love was never enough. She gave you everything. When buttons went missing on your clothes, she sewed them back on. A peck on the cheek before bundling you into the car to go to school that tasted like honey. A chocolate or strawberry milkshake moustache after school, hot and spicy fried chicken with coleslaw if you were good. There was even ice cream in the park after speech and drama classes at Marjorie Gilbey’s Studio. Her warm hugs shaped you, and whatever your demons may be, monkey, she also shaped all your internal struggles that you have carried with you into the man you are today.’

‘Wren, it has always been that way with mothers and daughters. A mother is always in love with the son she creates and you watch too much television.’

‘For a long time now, no, for more than that I think that television has made a lot more sense than real life has. We used to make up stories. Do you remember that Wolf? We used to make up ghost stories.’

‘Do you have guts Wren?’

‘No, Wolf I don’t think I have.’

‘Well then that’s one thing we both agree on. Don’t bring up the past just because you’re still living in it. I’ve moved on. You see that’s why I’m a forward-thinker and you’re not. Its afternoon and you’ve done nothing for the day and you’re still dressed in your pajamas. Think like a forward-thinker for once and perhaps you life might just be transformed.’

‘Yes, I think you’re right. Maybe I’d have ended up an entrepreneur like you.’

5. Entry from Wolf’s journal

Do you want to see my scars? When and where I’ve come undone. Nobody wants to see the scars, only how I’ve anchored Wren.

Here she comes, Wren, another visit from the drowned girl. She sits at the end of my bed while I read. She wants to give my comic books to orphans and street children but they do not know what the word ‘Marvel’ means in my life. Sometimes I wish she would leave me alone with her sad, soft eyes. I know when she’s been crying and it’s usually about something that happened in the past. Melancholia shudders through me. I can fee the ripple pass through my body like a current or an inelegant spasm.

What Africa must learn from wars is you must let the clouds see you. You must let the skin of the tightrope of the blue-sky sink into you. The world is not my home. It is only borrowed temporarily. I remember a burst of radiance and how nature must then have seemed like a green acre on the farms we passed when going to visit my father’s family from every mile. And so I come to Vietnam. Some have said that war has a purpose. It pours maturity into a boy’s heart. But they forget what will happen to his soul. And so the world moved swiftly towards morality with a knot at the base of my throat. And on the battlefields lies depression. A picture of power and survival where hunger is just a bomb made from chaos and absurdity. I am glad war was not my fight, my purpose. Whoever does it bring meaning and value to?

Iraq was a sky bright with stars. A burning voyage into the land of saboteurs and destruction, an ancient one built on flames. All this talk of war would just reduce Wren to tears.

In a most far off northern city she’s (Wren) comes undone (women and hysteria).

So what if I come undone again. I don’t think either of the parental units or anyone for that matter will notice.

This time I’ve the one who has come undone but nobody really cared.

My grandfather (Joseph William George) a war veteran. Posted off to Kenya at the start of the Second World War and when he came back he was never the same again (no hero’s welcome). He was given a bicycle and a jacket for the Coloured soldier. I did not live to see any of that (I was not born yet) but my father did and I guess my grandfather carried that humiliation for the rest of his life. Men are changed by war as are the women and children they leave behind. We stopped throwing birthday parties for Wren when she turned twenty. Only my friends came over and we hung out in my room sucking beer out of bottles and left the empties stacked high in the kitchen. I could sense Wren’s disapproval. It was acute. She was fragile. She always was. Her nerves on edge, raw, sharp, fierce. Our love was like a sonnet. Our fear and trepidation for a future we would go out into the world on our own a haiku. Life and death is very succinct in a haiku. Most nights we’d stay in, and watch the news and eat spaghetti (proper family stuff). When I was in that almost fatal car accident (that nobody in the family ever spoke about) and I could sense the face of the road’s blackness coming out to meet me head on before I could see it, I was not afraid. The car was a complete write-off but I walked away from the crash with minor injuries, scratches. The car had wrapped itself around a tree. It is madness to drink before you get into a car but I did it all the time way back then. Not because I thought it was cool but because I could get away with it. Wren if she had her way would want me to be a Buddhist monk. And if her world were perfect she would brave the New World around her as a nun. She would remain in a pure state, the one she had carried with her from childhood. Wren would be charged with innocence. She wasn’t always a poet. And she wasn’t always very nice to me. Issues, issues, issues, burning ones, diaries and notebooks filled with scribble from top to bottom, pictures she painted, photographs she took revealed her genuine person. And so she became something much more authentic that I could relate to and I could love her again. I did not know about the love affairs she had. She never exposed that side of her. At home she was a killer Monopoly and Scrabble player. Maybe that’s all we knew of each other, that we were killers when it came to playing board games and little else. I know nothing of the much older men she fell in love with. How lost she felt sometimes, that she created boxes in her mind’s eye where she put their lone shadows at rest, her suffering in silence, storing tiny details about their beauty and strength that she accumulated across weeks and months of going from one relationship to the next. The sister I know helped me cook the Christmas lunch with velocity and there were plenty of smiles when the chicken came out perfectly. The roast potatoes, the pan glistening with fat and runny juices it was not just something for the two of us to do, to pass the time like any other family would on a special holiday, we spoke but not in so many words. She would watch me carefully with her eyes catching every move I made but that she was sometimes slow to react to. I think most of all she wanted to be seen as serene and graceful, a lady who had sky-high standards but sometimes she failed at that. We all became really good at composing ourselves and to project what the outside world wanted to see of us, which was a modern family. A family of productive thinkers, doers, intellectuals, connected to the culture of creativity and linked to charm, and charisma. Every year our holidays would turn into pilgrimages and those times were when the core, the heart of our family system was the strongest. When things changed for the worse, for the better, it happened like a swinging pendulum. Wren was at the centre of it, always at the centre of it. And there was nothing that anybody could do about it. If I do not write home about its adversity from my unique perspective then who will, that sweet, poetic stagnation of bipolar. Wren and illness, her illness, all the sorrowful angles staring up at the face of the sun but could she even feel it, that sensation of electrifying warmth on cool skin when you’ve just come outdoors to feed the dogs or throw a ball around. The word ‘suicide’ was strictly outlawed in our home. 

Wren was always more at home at the end of the sky, the outdoors and by outdoors I mean stepping out into our mother’s garden that smelled like jasmine and lavender and incense burning. It was years before we found out that not everyone lived, looked, thought the way we did. And by ‘the end of the sky’ I mean the world of her imagination. I think my sister Wren has always wanted to touch people’s lives in a meaningful way and that even though our childhood was brutal in some ways we had to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind if we ever got lost on the trail in that dark forest at night.

6. From Wren’s diary

Now I am a changed person, a changed woman. No longer a stranger or estranged from readying herself to take up her place in the world. There it was. What more could be said about the end of the damned affair. Love me. Choose me. But I did not speak those words, nor could I find it in my heart to bring my self to say them. I had enough of being left behind, being told what to do, think and feel. I was tired of being engaged in that useless interaction.

7. But my heart breaks when I think of it

Our clothes had grass stains on it. The sun shone in our eyes while we blinked madly (maybe they were tears). There we were. Wolf and Wren playing together, laughing, talking, watching, observing the other ‘patients’. What was wrong with them? They seemed to be perfectly all right. Daddy is smiling and he kisses mummy on the lips and we all say, ‘Ooh, daddy and mummy is in love.’ If mummy is sad she doesn’t show it. It is me who is left to wonder at the complexities of grown up behavior, human nature. It’s Wolf who is perfectly normal here. We lay on our backs but there weren’t any clouds. We played at making a fire. The rock, paper, scissors game. We had come to visit daddy. On the way to the clinic mummy didn’t play the radio. The ride there was quiet. Wolf looked out the window and I sat up front like a grown up next to mummy. I don’t want this for Wolf’s children and I don’t want this for my own. Daddy says he is well. He is painting. He even finds time to read. I wish I could run away. I wished I could hold onto Wolf’s hand forever, that he could never, ever read my mind, that I could protect him forever. Mummy wants another baby. She said that once. Daddy cannot see Wolf waving. It’s so heartbreaking. I don’t want to be me. I turn around and look at my mother’s profile. It hurts to breathe, to think, to mutter, or even to whisper anything. I do not know yet that grown up I will mostly have views of fertility and family, psychiatry and psychology in the world I live in. My sister will live faraway in another city, work hard in a bank and only come home once a year for Christmas or never.

8. With a hand in the fire (Wren in the late twenties)

All I see when I close my eyes is the flowers of nighttime.

Their shade is black. Their eyes are black. Their shape is black. They’re hideous with their claws clawing at me. They seem to want to drown. It is their livelihood. They’ve received our freedom and so must we. These have not been my best years so far. They seem all shriveled up as if they have died. I feel dried up inside up. I feel thirsty, let down, I need to feel the sun on my back, I need to learn how to cope, stand on my own and not feel let down by life, love, family, aunts and a sister all the time. I need to see you. How convenient for you that I have simply vanished into thin air. Your little doll, your plaything, your pretty baby doll. I have now some sizing up to do. I am marked for life or is it death. Hey, wait a minute now. There is more to this tale of loss and of love. There is no point in shortcuts babe, hey? (This is taken from a diary entry from that scene in Johannesburg where I caused many scenes).

After you left me (or is it the other way around) how do I justify misbehaving so badly? I was so savagely torn from what I believed in. I stood by my values.

Your cowardice up, no longer fastened on me, fascinated me. I wish I could say that I could love something and stick to it. I no longer feel safe in the world if I am not solely yours, if I am not in your arms.

9. For Wolf

Your words have always been a chicken soup for my spirit, my harvest, my shield, my river, my border, the boundaries of the four walls keeping the good parts of my consciousness in. You have taught me to look the world in the eye. Your hands were the hands that were in the fire. And you were the one who pulled me from the wreckage (from the weight of a heavy burden of illness).

Now this city, Port Elizabeth is haunting. I miss Johannesburg. I seemed more at home there (curiously), more at ease, more my self, less exposed to the elements, the human elements and others. Swaziland is even further away. Now it just a memory. And I can’t remember the pent-up desire to leave my childhood home. All this time I’ve been haunted by the past and while history surrounds us you move forward.

Wolf, all my life I have imagined you, lucid, intent on not struggling with your own identity. All my life I have imagined you as a luminous quiet treasure. The good toy soldier with war wounds a-plenty. Your dark hair that smelled of rain when you were a little boy eating fudge ice cream or a tuna fish sandwich with a serious and determined expression on your tiny curious face. And then there was still the architecture of the waterfall, the carnival, the splendid circus of my departed sadness, and that became my inheritance to you.

10. Red Velvet Cake (Wren’s turn at thirtysomething)

It came in a box, dry ingredients for the Red Velvet cake all the way from America from a cousin who was staying there now. A cousin who had two boisterous children under the age of five and an American husband, and it also came with a tub of frosting that did not have to be refrigerated. There had been a lot of cakes made, bought, and decorated in that house as well as memories that burned, that would send you to an early grave (I’ll never forget the mass graves discovered in Herzegovina-Bosnia that I watched on television when I was in high school). But eating birthday cake you’d soon forget all about that. You’d lick the icing off the spoon, drink tea like a grown up out of teacups decorated with flowers and pink blooms. Kiss and greet family at your birthday tea party like you haven’t seen them in years. Life gets heavy if you don’t have them around you to protect, to keep you safe from harm. Why would I want to go to Alaska? It’s cold for one. To be near some thing, some place that doesn’t remind me of the sun but at the end of the day it isn’t the destination that becomes important. It’s who you are with the people you’re with, the significant and important people you love. This feels like a distant and remote thing for me, love, and the art of loving. And the art of loving one genius in a family is never enough even if it is done from faraway. The ones left in the shadows they too have their roles to play even if it takes their entire lifetimes to realise it. Poetry is such a comfort and if I had a scarcity of it in my life I think there is a part of me that would not feel entirely whole. I would be the half-hearted experiment making an attempt to live an exemplary life like Ingrid Jonker, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Norma Jean Baker. Not just names and faces but also icons in their field. Women ahead of the times they were born into and who would lead the next generation. And I would be a poet, that poet with the seasons all a flutter inside her head while butterflies danced, nerves whirling into algorithms until both could not be discriminated. These would be all my rituals. To eat, to meditate, to feast, to remember childhood anxieties, what I anticipated around every corner, the fudge my mother used to make, how my grandmother’s, the matriarch of the family cheek felt like porcelain, smelt like powder after I kissed her. I knew I had inherited some of that from her, cold, calculating recipes and the baking of bread that would turn into disasters in my hands. She taught me to realise self, selfhood and what would challenge me later in life and if it was going to be illness that I was going to live with it for a very long time my life had to be a wonderfully epic one. I had to make it a legend of flirting with falls, of standing up and of letting go of the world. Instead of wondering why half the time mental illness was so unquiet.

11. Porcelain

It starts with me first. The angel’s tongue, volcano, fireflies, philosophy singeing my dopamine and me asking myself, ‘Where are you going to,’ and later, much later, ‘How on earth did you get here?’

12. Fudge

And then I met Julian and the origins of the universe tasted sweeter. Life can be sweet, bittersweet, taste like American fudge, caramel, butterscotch, or liquid vanilla. (He was beautiful). He had dark hair, long dark hair (and I can remember threads of it lying across his back), wearing blue jeans, a denim shirt and him carrying a guitar. For now he is my Savior because we talk all the time for what seems like hours with the brushstrokes of quality not quantity. Our conversations, our heated debates about the food served in the canteen, even our silences take us both on a Zen-like spiritual expedition. I think we were both at a point in our lives where we wanted answers, elegant solutions as to why this had to happen to us. And then he opens up. Another passage, rite and pilgrimage for me. He decides to talk about his schizophrenia. He is my first friend in this hospital of both fun and hell and I want to protect him from the world around him, the world at large and me (some of me, the internal struggle that has no coherent voice, cohesive exterior). I want to shelter him from society that extracts and distills the intelligence of a child, man or a woman that has mental illness and calls it ‘madness’.

13. Stuff you should know (in Wren’s footsteps)

I wanted to travel when I was younger but now there seems to be no time for that. I’ve read Tolstoy and Nabokov and now want to read Pasternak (all Russian writers). I wanted to study in Europe and America but what’s the point when you really can’t time or pinpoint when you’re going to be ‘flying off the rails’, hallucinate disco beats in Technicolor, when you’ve imagined that you are not ‘you’. ‘You’ are just wasting away in a room not faraway from where people actually live. In a bedroom that your mother made pretty by putting flowers, actually roses now that you come to think of it, in a vase to make the ‘sadness’ pretty. After all you’re still a girl and girls love pink and pretty, dresses and shoes, flowers, anything beautiful. It is your mother that comes to your room in the morning first thing and opens up your curtains. Who will tell you to clean your room when you’re thirtysomething, that she’s doing the laundry, ‘where are your dirty clothes and I need those sheets too’. It is your mother who will want to lift your spirits, the same way you wanted to lift hers when she listened to the dialogue on the television when you were little. When you were thinking that she was tired and resting on the sofa, with her eyes closed while you watched the curve of her bottom lip and her mouth slightly open while she breathed in and out.

14. Unexpectedly Closing In

Times of depression can be fun. It’s a host for good material to write about but you can also remember your cruel intentions, your moods that other people around you have to live with. When you are not fun you are sheer hell to be around with and people will be powerless to stop the things you do and say. You will regret your actions the morning after but by then it will be too late. The damage would have been done and then there will be no apology in the world that will make the wrong seem right. You would have lost a friend, an ally in a world already filled with enough fear. Cold women have always surrounded me and at first I thought it came from their heart but then I grew up. It comes with instinct, influence and experience through your dealings with the opposite sex and the people who have hurt you the most during your life experience. Now I’m the cold woman. Cold hands, cold feet, cold comfort, uncomfortable in situations where I must speak my mind. People want a woman on their arm who is confident, who dazzles, sparkles, shines with vitality. I am not that kind of woman and I never will be. So how on earth did I get here? I took a walk in the clouds. Divinity, profound observation of the nature of human behavior, killer instinct, restoration (something had to be restored to me). Wolf is a riddle locked in stone.


Part Two

15. It lies in the palms of my hands like driftwood

Before I discovered the Russian writers (Nabokov and Dostoyevsky), there were the English novelists, feminists before their time with their pride and prejudice, sense and sensibilities, the spell of Mister Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre’ and the ghosts in the wilderness of ‘Wuthering Heights’. I could not escape from their shroud, their magical, otherworldly and ethereal quality that covered me with the fairy dust of the sun, moon, North, evening stars and a feast of seasons. It was before I felt compelled to write with every breath. As a child I knew nothing about Africa. Words like ‘Cameroon’, ‘Botswana’ tasted like magic. All I knew was that the world I lived in held a sun in the sky during the day and a moon in the evening. North was up in the air somewhere.

16. Julian

Inside I still feel twenty-two. In his arms I felt cold, numb as if grief was pulsating through my veins. I looked at his face. I was smiling. He was not smiling. And my first instinct was that I had done something wrong. What were the details of the flaw? I decided then and there I would never make anyone happy or love me. Julian tasted like the different elements of Africa, the wilderness, grasses, winter. Hard to explain everything here. But I am sure you get the direction I'm getting into. Color is very important to me. All the textures, shapes, crafts, the black and white medium of the world seemed to collaborate somehow when I was with him. Julian’s eyes were bright. His skin was beautiful. It still is frozen in a time machine only his eyes are less sharp. His shirt is still warm. His hands feel cool. I touch his palm with my fingertips. I can hear thunder, lightning crackling in the air, blue light, the field turning into sticky, squelching mud. He taught me what beauty is.

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