by Abigail George
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|Killed. Killed. Killed. Killed. Killed. They were two families burnt to death with all their worldly possessions. Spoons and bowls in a nomadic kitchen fitted with the utensils that befitted a rural village. Here in a corner is a black, cooking pot for porridge and pap; leafy green vegetables, a spade and a fork resting against the wall for the organic garden out back.
Here nothing runs on automatic and they do not have room for a screensaver, a microwave oven, aftershave, a caravan with a trailer to go to the sea or camping, a laptop. The only fish they eat is not fresh from the sea like in Cape Town or a fisherman’s wharf (they have not seen the sea; since birth it has been an enigma) it comes in a tin with a picture of a pilchard on it.
They have cut all ties with the dizzying outside world. The children talk to the animals, swim in purified streams filled with calcium (kind of like the water the outside world puts in bottled water and call it mineral water), herd cattle. They are made of sturdy stock, their teeth like pearls; they smell like the earth; pure, their skin like ochre, soft like Vaseline. The children’s grandfathers smell of tobacco.
Mama smells like Vicks vapour rub. Her brood watches her with careful, glassy eyes scared that she will vanish and disappear like their friends and then who will tuck them in at night with a blanket that smells of feet. They are still better off here in the village than their cousins and aunties and uncles who disappeared to the cities for ‘a better life’.
Mielies take over the ground from seed, shoot up, blooming pioneers. But the smell of death hangs in the air like a shroud. If only it was winter or spring. If only, the elders said, the rain would come and come it did. It washed away another little girl as she tried to cross a stream which had become a riverbed with all the rain which had become a flood. She had been on her way to school with her siblings.
She had been holding onto a hand but her hand got wet and sticky. She was distracted by flies. Now her life had spilled into dead leaves, fresh grass, mud and rubbish. There were chippie packets, bubblegum wrappers, chocolate éclairs, crushed sweet papers, cans and fizzy cooldrink bottles. A life wasted. No longer warm, no pulse beating, no heart, eyes fluttering, life hovering delicately.
No warnings come with rural fires. They just happen. No swoop of red sirens going on and off, on and off. They only come when the flames are sighted and by then generally it is too late. There is already a grisly body count. Women screaming with lungs made of stone.
As shavings off the roof take to pale flame bodies limp with sleep slowly turn to ash with embers burning. Ochre heads smoothed by fire as if being caressed by gentle hands. There is no hope only the wake of birds where two beams overhead meet and the smell of bird shit in the air. There is no time left to pack, to wonder what to let go of. The parents who are supposed to be here are absent.
Long ago they became old before their time and tired and were starting to care nothing about love. Mama from next door with her blue rimmed eyes and her children with the blue rimmed eyes is screaming and cursing. How could this happen? How could this happen? It was lightning, the policeman said. It was beyond the forces of their control.
Even someone from the cabinet came out and said it was beyond the forces of their control. This is no fun to watch on television. Instead they show me the Mexican pizza that can feed a village with streets lined with people waiting their turn to stuff their faces with cheese and dripping, meaty tomato sauce. It’s the New Year and already the death toll has risen. There were whole families dead within seconds.
Only this time it is not about crime ridden streets in Hillbrow, Johannesburg or crime ridden streets anywhere for that matter. Drugs being peddled by slicked up gangsters with greasy hair, whose mouths tasted of cigarettes or something stronger. With a swagger they welcomed the New Year in with brown bottles concealed in brown bags. There was no gang warfare. It was Mother Nature. It was lightning like the policeman said.
Bodies burnt to a black crisp shell crouched on bed springs eyed the authorities from the floor. There was no one who could say, ‘Never again. Never again.’
The authorities had said sternly ‘no more empty promises if you vote for our party in the local upcoming elections. But Mama was still screaming and crying and holding onto a man’s dry handkerchief in her hands as if her life depended on it.
The neighbours hearts were in sharp, needy knots. They wanted the facts of the matter at hand. There was tension in the blue air. Conceit mixed with pride in the eyes of the policeman who shook the lady from the president’s cabinet’s hand. They both tried not to look at the stump of a limb of a baby doll with a black slit for an eye. The other eyeballing them as if to say, ‘this was your fault.’
If only you had reached into the fire with your unprotected hands, the burning house made of thatch, twigs, wood, manure, been wild with the desire of a feeding animal, a lion, an imaginary beast, a demon, reached the sleeping child before her life was erased, diminished from sight before her time and now she walks in heaven, this angel in a realm that is no longer physical because you too were sleeping.
Because you were not brave enough. Perhaps it was because you were dreaming of the coast spreading out licking the soles of your feet into sandy dunes before it reached the unbreakable, bleak shoreline of Kwazulu Natal that caught, wrapped itself around ships and beached them like whales. Perhaps it was because you were with your man or with your woman and because of this a child’s life is now wrecked. She can no longer wear those blue shoes to church with her brother and sister and grandmother or play with orphaned toys missing eyes and limbs that she inherited from the meester’s huis. Even the thorn bush at the door is burnt to cinders. The smell of death is everywhere.
The smells of decay, peaceful slumber, children twisting the blankets around their legs, at their feet, kicking the child that lay next to them without a worry or a care are a whole lot different. These children cannot hear anymore. They are not lost in the loud voice of their teacher. They are not whimpering from getting a smack against the head, yelling or shrieking on the playground.
Those days are long gone; over as if caused by an issue of magic or a social worker’s case study. Now their heads will be cradled by flowers on top of their coffins and women will shriek, yell and scream and their heads will be cradled by veils or stuffy hats adorned with fake roses, fake petals, fake blooms centered by mysterious hat pins.
They will cry for the children that died but most of all these women will cry for their own children and that they survived; they are still alive and that gives them hope when all is lost. They will begin to map out the next day’s routine. The food they will cook and prepare to nourish the malnourished little bellies of their children. They will sleep next to men who snore and reach for them in their sleep.
These resourceful, omnipotent women who are yelling, screaming and crying salty tears next to the graves of the dead whose bodies are unrecognisable, whose caskets were closed in the church and closed at the graveside; their children will be walking to school for hours tomorrow or the next day or at the end of the school holiday in heat, in rain, in dust.
They will curl up with their school books on mattresses that have the foam coming out and study by candle light, by the street light, play soccer barefoot. They will join gangs when they have become bored with life in the green countryside of their childhood because they have had enough of porridge, pap and leafy, green vegetables.
In the city they will become con men and con women, disaffected artists, wolves in sheep’s clothing. They will forget the castles of their childhood, the borders, the battlements, the privy they had to use or where they made the latrine, their bedroom they had to share with other children of the same age; some older, some blood family, others adopted because they were orphaned.
They will remember walls, open spaces, walls where there was no toilet, their beds in their bedroom, walls, dusk, walls, having no privacy, walls, snot dripping from their noses as they rushed up to meet the no-clouds-in-the-sky sky out of a black pool where they splashed each other and played at killing each other, drowning each other, dragging legs under water, walls, bridges, walls, rites, walls, oranges, walls, slow-moving attitudes of the old, the infirm, the frail, the delicate, the fragile flowers, walls, the bricks of the mission house, walls, the pale skin of the missionaries.
Only much later and not fully grown would they see this life as a cell. They would sip a fizzy drink through a straw in the city and a café eating a steak Gatsby or fish and chips and feel vastly superior to everyone they ever grew up with on a white hot summer’s day. They would wipe the sweat off their brow, lick their lips and wipe their mouth with the back of their hand still feeling vastly superior to everyone else.
The memories of death in a village in the rural countryside of Kwazulu Natal would be quelled. Stopped dead in its tracks, shut up, shut in kind of like lightning. It sits where it wants. It is kind of like thunder. You never know when it’s going to hit the living memory of a shell-shocked, cauterized, earth-shaken human being suffering from trauma and the long wait, the long haul for emergency services to get to them.
All this time this girl and this boy from the backward countryside weaves their head in time to the music blasting out of a taxi instead of listening to sheep or to cows. The girl moves her hips in the seat as if she has worms. She wriggles to the beat. The boy taps his shoes he bought off a hawker. And because they are young and the city life has made them lazy; laidback they are slow to react to their environment.
Instead they watch the knife blade slice through the air, cut a man’s throat and as he falls to the ground his hands everywhere, red in the air, they shrug their shoulders as if to say I am use to this. Crime is everywhere in the city. The other day, the girl reminisces, she saw a boy grab a woman’s purse in broad daylight. Nobody stopped him as he ran.
But when they dream, not everything in this city is as bursting with cheap scent, is as beautiful as they had hoped to find. Not all devilish monsters under the bed are dissolved, as limp as rag dolls or socks. A human being they, these uninitiated boys and girls from the rural countryside find even in dreams treads the fine humdrum lines of the human condition, the middle of in-between caught between classified reality and mental illness.
In the city they move like ghosts. As if there is a helicopter waiting for them to take them places. As children they loved words, learned lists of them for spelling tests, for English, for their mother tongue. It made them competitive with their friends to see who could score the highest marks in a test. Now they don’t have the energy for words or to make space for them. Girl clicks her tongue. Boy uses his fists.
Even with young bodies plumped up thighs spread, denim skirt hiked up sticking to a chair outside a café. Even in summer. In the city there is no Mama telling you what to do and what not to do. What is right and what is wrong. In the city there is always a café open, with a chair and a table where you can sit and sip your lukewarm fizzy drink. In the city it is summer all the time.
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