We grow up nourished by stories. They are the soil in which we are planted; the water seeping into our roots and flowing through our veins. When we are cut, stories bleed out and feed the ground around us. We can’t seem to shake them off: they are in us and of us.
I grew up on stories of my mother. From the time she died when I was four years old, to my first day at high school, through the years of almost-adulthood, I was fed with words about this woman whose life meant so many different things. My childhood was a collection of second-hand images and references to a word, a smile, a left elbow belonging to my mum and now inextricably a part of me. “You look just like her when you wear your hair like that”.
There was one photo in particular that I would stare at for chunks of my day. I would meditate on it, memorising every line and shadow to colour my dreams that night, where Ma’s maroon sari would come alive and wreak havoc across my subconscious world. The mischievous garment of my dreams appears in a much more subdued and respectable guise in the photograph: draped tastefully over a shiny brown shoulder whose slender neck is tilted back in devastatingly perfect laughter. My mother’s eyes are closed in a captured moment of self-forgetfulness and her teeth – one slightly skew – are little white jewels in a deliciously pink mouth. She sits under a tree and the dappled sunlight casts mystical shadows over her face and body. There is a golden patch in the shape of Africa over her left eyelid.
The photograph was a charmed object to me, a talisman to hold onto and keep close for the days when your shoulders feel a little heavier than usual. It was a snippet of a better world, in which beautiful brown women are alone and perfect in the warmth of a sun whose gentle heat evaporates secret tears. There can be no despair for the woman in that maroon sari. There are no slammed doors, no hospital waiting rooms or harsh words whispered once the children are asleep. In that photograph, the dappled sunlight envelops everything – my mother’s slight frame and pink mouth – and keeps it safe. Keeps it pure.
There is nothing very ‘pure’ about me, I don’t think. My hair, my name, the way I speak – they all send a million indecipherable messages in some crazy mixed-race Morse code. I don’t even know how to decipher myself. So it’s no surprise that this ‘colour-blind’ country I live in (which is actually not-so-secretly obsessed with categorising everything from music to grocery preferences into neat racial boxes) has no idea how to read me.
“Chandra… Urshla… Ngcobo?”
It was always a mortifying thing, that first encounter between the teacher and my name. Made exponentially more mortifying by their almost universal inability to pronounce it, and an apparent unawareness as to this shortcoming (how is it that some teachers can make you feel the irrepressible need to apologise, when the fault clearly lies with them?). I presented an anomaly to them – a complication. What unreadable thoughts lurked beneath those bushy eyebrows and murky brown eyes? It was a mystery that they, by and large, endeavoured to avoid. With relative success, I might add, except for the occasional slip of the tongue or unguarded stare, or thinly veiled interrogation: “Who do you live with at home, my girl?”
As for me, my inscrutable ten-year-old mind was preoccupied with the weightier issues of life. Skipping ropes. Nail polish. Glitter. Somehow, though, my mind’s wandering trail would always lead back to that shiny brown woman under the tree. Stroking my dog-eared photograph like a graven image, I would follow the pathway along the grass until I came to where she sat. I’d crouch at her slender feet and gaze, enraptured, into a pink smile so wide, so benevolent, it could embrace even my bony shoulders and scraped knees.
Come unto me, it said. All ye whose faces are obscured: I will lift the veil.
My ten-year-old self was comforted, but the questions remained.
But when will my neck arch delicately in the dappled sunlight? And why don’t the white boys think I’m beautiful?
Ma, I don’t know why I let him do it.
“You’re very beautiful”. His mouth spoke words I had heard somewhere before, but they had never been words for me – my words. As they dripped out of his sticky-sweet mouth, I looked twice before I caught them. One can never be too sure, Ma, and I think that his eyes were whispering something else about me that I chose not to hear.
When delicate, pale fingers brushed the skin on my neck and waist, and he spoke words I could not utter even in the darkness, again I chose not to hear anything except the frantic and feverish thudding of my own heart. When I swept limp brown hair away from his forehead and looked into his eyes for the last time, I could not hear anything but the stories he had written for me before I was even born: I, a dark and untamed thing, possessing a kind of beauty for those wise enough to see it. He experienced divine enlightenment, and my imaginary claws retracted so far that they pierced the insides of my limbs all the way to my obscure, unknowable heart.
I could not cry for four months, and when I eventually did, malicious tears scratched their way down my face and offered no solace.
Ma, I have now known what it is to be pieced together and held in the darkness. I now know what it is to be loved, and so remembering this memory to you does not pain me anymore.
My father is a good man, I think. I asked him, once, what he thought about her when they first met. He was silent for a long time, and then looked at me (he has infinitely kind eyes) and said, In the words of a great poet, “Yini leyaya?
I thought, this is a beautiful danger.
If you look closely at the photograph of my mother under the tree, you can see a little brown box about a thumb-space away from her right foot. This is the box she kept my father’s letters in, when he was in exile. He wrote elegant, blue-inked letters which were always meticulously folded and dated – as if by scrupulously maintaining conventions, he might somehow contain the chaos unfolding outside of those crisp white envelopes.
Dear Kajal, they began. And always ended with,Yours, Themba. The words in those letters are from another time, before his story and hers were woven together and bound by the consummating blood that pumped through my infant heart. They paint endearing images in my mind of my father in perfectly pressed pants and cable-knitted jerseys – he is always immaculately dressed – hunched over his desk in a dim room in England, perhaps with a little fire on the go to defrost his African hands as they inscribe spotless pages with flowing blue stories.
We went to an anti-apartheid rally today, he would write, using the same somewhat detached tone he used to describe the colour of his new flat, or the changeable weather in Oxford.
It was an unexpectedly sunny day.
You would have liked the paintings we saw at the museum.
I am thinking of staying another year.
But occasionally, the words would hint at a deeper truth which, in fact, underpinned every other blue syllable he uttered: I saw a beautiful, thorny red rose on my morning walk that reminded me of you. How I miss your laugh.
My mother’s letters are far more erratic, with raw emotion bursting through every line. I almost want to look away sometimes, but can’t.
Tonight, I treated a woman whose house had been set alight while she was sleeping. As I dressed her burn wounds, she tried to tell me the story through her sobs and she eventually broke down completely. I don’t know how much more of this I can take, Themba. They are making our people tear at each other, and all we can do is watch and mourn. I am so tired of funerals – I don’t have any tears left to cry. I’ve forgotten how. I feel like I’m forgetting who I am…
Ma had to forget a great many things to live: uncountable harsh words, dark looks, brushes of the shoulder, pained conversations, and ways of being which no longer belonged to her. She had to learn to forget how to hug her father, or laugh with her mother until they both bent over, tearful and breathless and exhilarated. When she married my father, she had to unremember a lifetime of gentle touches and reassurances which were suddenly – violently – no longer there. Perhaps she couldn’t learn fast enough how to forget; perhaps she learned too fast and there was no chance to go back once she had given them over – all the memories – one by one, untying them from her delicate frame and casting them into the abyss.
When she died, they came back for her memories: aunts, uncles, cousins, mother, father. They came to take back a piece of her story for themselves: to spit and polish it up a bit, put it in the room divider in a somewhat prominent position, and glance at it every now and then with a tut-tut and a ready-made sad story to tell to inquisitive visitors.
My body is the place where their stories intertwined. Two strands met, embraced, and were fused together in my marrow, speaking a hundred languages and humming a strange symphony. They were used to fighting, these strands, but singing came surprisingly easily once they learned the words. In my tight infant fist is where I held them together for a while – long enough for their new story to develop along a familiar plotline: wedding, house, bouncing brown baby. But as my fist unfurled to an exciting new world, the story started to diffuse like strong incense, and deviated from the script in jarring ways. I do not remember a lot from those days, but when you look into the hollow face of your mother and she seems to no longer recognise you, you realise that there is no story after all. Everything resembling a logic is mere chance; it is all held together by an imaginary spider’s web, undone with a careless brush of the hand.
When you unravelled, he tried to gather you together; but in the end not even he (with the elegant handwriting and kind eyes) could keep your pieces from scattering, irretrievably, leaving trails of gold dust as they fell.
I don’t remember when it happened, but now I can’t imagine life without it: your voice, Ma, guiding me, sometimes gently teasing, telling me the strangest secrets about my life and yours.
There, my darling – look at the little girl next to you. She needs a hug today.
You are always so wise; so kind. When you whisper your soft truths to me, the entire street is transfigured before my eyes, aglow with eternal significance. Traders exchange infinitely valuable treasures for the cost of a smile, and the voices of the women who shout out prices at street corners disperse into a thousand multifaceted melodies that tickle my ears as I walk.
It seems that the more I learn to listen to your voice, the less weighed down I feel by the ‘real world’, with its incessant demands to be this, or be that, to speak, to be silent, to laugh, or to hide. Your words lift me up out of myself; they make me see what could be.
When I walk past the man with matted hair, who manically beats the ground with both fists and cries out into the smoggy city air every evening, I feel an overwhelming wave of compassion rise up in my breast because you, Ma, have told me his story. I remember the words, spoken so tenderly, and the sound of tears catching in your throat – He is so desperate, my darling.
I am beginning to feel this desperation as if it is my own, and it frightens me. Last Friday, I walked past him again and reached out my bony hand to embrace his, but he brushed it away roughly and the very last string tying my soul together snapped. I watched through streams of tears as he hobbled away, leaving behind a trail of spidery blue words, each one written in perfect cursive.
They said I need to “take some time off” and be in a “safe space” to recover. But there is nothing safe about the foreboding feeling that you can trust no one – not even yourself – and the growing suspicion that your thoughts may not even really be thoughts at all, but merely the result of a particular combination of administered chemicals. No matter what the chemicals try to whisper to you, you see right through them. They have been playing their tricks with my endorphins, trying to pull the wool over my eyes and distract me with A-Grade feelings of Health and Wellbeing, but I know it is a ruse.
Somehow, this knowing makes the numbness a bit more bearable. My eyes are still unable to cry the tears I know are lurking just beneath their lids, and my throat still longs to unleash red shrieks that would terrify even me – but I am In Recovery and On Medication now. We don’t do that type of thing over here.
When they first brought me in, I could not contain or understand the tears. I cried and cried and cried, so much that I started to irritate myself. Who is that annoying woman, pestering us with her incessant wailing?
The others didn’t seem to mind so much, and I thought that was kind of them. They are a colourful group of people, and I know that I would find them exceedingly interesting and perhaps fall in love with each one individually – if only I weren’t imprisoned with them and forced to eat the same lumpy porridge or be subjected to the same clinical gazes. I’m not like them, I want to say. It troubles me that this is what we have all thought at some stage, including my psychiatrist, and the nurse who gives me extra dessert, and the old man who thinks the black government is hiding his lottery money.
The stories they tell here are a bit too vivid. They make me see and feel things I would rather forget, and they have the disconcerting habit of creeping into my dreams in disguises that are both familiar and strange. One woman, who said she could ‘see things’, told me a story about my mother the other day. It was mostly factually incorrect (right down to the name of her favourite childhood pet) and riddled with narrative plot-holes, but I did not say this to her. She held my hands the entire time, and hers were so soft and warm that I instantly forgave her any transgression. Besides, she mentioned that my mother was standing next to us and I, in fact, knew this to be true. So there can be no doubt that this woman was onto something. No doubt.
There is nothing like the feeling of having your hair oiled and plaited by the firm, strong hands of a brown-skinned woman; it is healing to the soul. When I was allowed to cry again, they let me go home to my aunty in Chatsworth to have my hair brushed for me, my plate filled with steaming tinfish curry, and my body swathed in clean white dresses for a while. I felt like a delicately pressed flower, powdered and scrubbed until I could think no unclean thoughts of anyone or anything. As my aunties battled my coarse black hair every morning (and always won), I felt the care and strength of a thousand years dripping down my scalp and seeping into my veins. Their sweet cups of tea and shrill laughter in between delicious bits of gossip made me feel like I was part of the world again. My body gained substance, and I no longer floated to my bed every night. They laughed at my jokes, too, and ate my burnt rice as if it were perfectly whole and pure.
When I walked past the mirror in my aunty’s bedroom, I would always pause for a while: in a flowing white dress and with my hair oiled and tamed, I looked a little like her, if I tilted my neck just so.
I think I understand why you did the thing you did, Ma. I, too, sometimes feel an inexorable pull towards the edge of that yawning precipice – my feet carry me almost of their own accord and they look so harmless and delicate (so much like yours) that I cannot but trust in their ways. That gaping darkness is both limitless and terrifyingly final, and yet I know that should I fall, I will be enveloped in the embrace of your soft maroon sari: my dark, red umbilical cord, pulsing with rich lifeblood and tethering me to you forever.
I have walked to the edge and back periodically. I know I will probably return; that is both inevitable and inconsequential. Of great consequence is what I will do once I get there – what I will hear and see; what I will carry and cast away.
When you walked there for the last time, you found that you could not bear to carry or cast away, and so you took it all with you – centuries of incoherence and inscrutable signs – as you fell, darkly.
As for me, I find I am tethered. The umbilical cord is writhing and drenched in blood, and I realise that the blood is not just yours or mine: It is also the blood of Uncle Thulani, who disappeared we don’t know where one night in 1978; it is the blood of my Aunty Urmila, praying every day for her son, who is addicted to whoonga and steals bits of her kitchen appliances every time he comes home; it is the blood of my Gogo and uMkhulu– my father’s parents – who were laid to rest on a plot of land they did not own, far away from familiar songs, where foreign dust settled on their lungs and encrusted their withered hearts.
It is also the new blood of my daughter, whose eyes are learning to see. Those eyes will learn to cry salty tears and to lower themselves in deference before the truly Beautiful. These days, I find myself praying one thing over and over: that she will learn to read the story of beauty in this world, and find that she is immovably tethered to it.
Cathryn Moodley is a young writer from South Africa. She is passionate about education, and the value and rights of all children. She believes in the revolutionary power of imagination to transform individuals and society, and is interested in the beauty of ‘ordinary’ people and their stories. When she is not writing, she is usually reading, chatting, walking, eating ice cream, or listening to live music.
Related country: South Africa