“As You Lie Dying” by Rosie Hopegood

14Aug13

As you lie dying, snatches of memories dart through your brain. Your synapses fire them off one after another and they crowd your head, a tumbling blizzard of images. They are like pages torn from a book, blowing in the wind. You clutch at them, grab for them, battling to hold onto something concrete: touch, a smell, your mother’s face, something to bring you back to earth. Above you, unfamiliar faces hover, dipping in and out of focus. Snippets of words, scraps of speech swim through your consciousness. Your fingers trace tiny circles on the rough pavement; you like the solid ground beneath you, the rutted cracks. The calloused stone is the only truth you now know.

“Move him over—”

“… got to stop the—”

“He needs to be—”

“…see where the guy went?”

You feel cold; you can feel the blood leaving your body with every sluggish pump of your heart. The bullet has gone deep into your chest, though strangely you cannot feel much pain, only a cold discomfort; the metal feels icy, winter unfurling across your chest. The crack of a blast, the clatter of dropped metal reverberates through your ears, a loop, an echo. The paving slab beneath your roving fingers becomes warm and wet; you cease their circling. Someone’s hands are pressing down on your chest, too hard; you want to tell them to stop but the breath is being pushed out of you, you have no words left to give. Far off, a siren wails—it is loud, too loud, you want it to stop, to be left alone, for the floating faces to be gone. You latch onto fragments of memories that race from you, dash at you, immerse you entirely.

a) A squat house: white washed walls and rust-red roof.

Your childhood house in Botswana, the place you think of when you think of home. Land stretches on all around the house, rugged and orange-red, dry and flat. There are no hills, just an eternity of horizon and two colours: the terracotta of the earth and the bright blue of the sky, relieved only by scrubby patches of plants and a few stunted, flat-topped trees. Wild animals roam in the distance, heard but unseen, though you are always imagining you hear the pregnant thud of an elephant’s step, or that you see a leopard, languid in a tree.

The house is simple, remote, far from other white people. Your dad drives for a day and a half along a dirt road to bring back supplies. The sun beats down relentlessly on the tired old pick up truck, the plastic of the dashboard is heat-warped, surreal. Two stripes of red dust trail in its wake, decorating the wilderness. You aren’t allowed to go with him, but you chase the truck as far as you can, choking on the dust until you trip and fall, landing heavily on your chest, skidding so that you tear your shirt. You return home shaded red, clean trails carved by tears on your dusty cheeks. “Little soldiers don’t cry,” your mother says.

b) The noises that exist in the middle of nowhere.

At night the sound of crickets fill the air, so loud that sometimes you are scared. The humming takes over your body, the vibrations fill you so you feel as though you are far away, looking in on yourself. The stars are so bright you can see clearly enough to read in bed, and read you do, thirsty for the words of worlds you know exist, full of people and traffic and noise and monsters. The sky is always an inky indigo, the stars luminous white, so plentiful that when you leave you think you have left them behind, that they belonged there, blessing that wilderness with their brilliance. Later, at school, when you see pictures of the Milky Way, this is what it reminds you of: looking at stars, dazzling stars, through the whirled white mesh of your mosquito net.

c) Deep brown eyes, a thick frill of lashes.

Kike, your pet impala. Poachers bring her to the door; her mother is dead, they want to sell her. Your dad says no and shuts the door, but the poachers leave her in the scrappy garden anyway, and she is so small, so defenseless that your mother takes pity. You feed her goat’s milk through an eyedropper, and watch her grow. You love her, truly love her, with a clarity you have not felt since. She isn’t allowed indoors, but you let her in sometimes—in she dashes, her skinny legs skittering and sliding on the tiled floor so that she collapses, spread-eagle, gazing up at you in confusion while you laugh and laugh.

One day she is gone and you never find her.

d) Insects, crawling insects.

You share your room with shining beetles that have backs like oil on water, and stink bugs who you can smell but cannot see and a grasshopper who you can hear but can never find, his percussion keeping you up at night. Sometimes you watch enormous spiders crawl on the outside of your mosquito net; you study the bright markings on the underside of their bodies through the milky mist of fabric. You are not afraid, you feel safe beneath your wrappings as if you are tucked into a tiny boat, far out at sea.

e) Your dad’s body; you were allowed to see it.

It looks like a perfect replica of him, a work of waxen art, except for the downturned mouth beneath his moustache. Why? He was always smiling. Malaria and he was gone, just like Kike. You have to move away to the big city that is filled with dust and heat and noise and fear. Johannesburg. You like the way it feels on your tongue, the melody of it, the weight of the syllables. Jo-hann-es-burg.

You leave behind the spiders and crickets and elephants that roam, always out of sight, and you move to that strange city. All around you your neighbours live behind electric fences, tall and sturdy, dark and looming. The orchestra of the crickets, which you come to miss, is replaced by the faint crackle, vague hum of electricity that pulses from the fencing. “I refuse to live in fear,” your mother tells you and your sister, but there are bars on the windows and panic buttons by the doors and alarms in every room and a small gun inlaid with pearls, that you sometimes take from her bedside drawer. You weigh it in your palms and feel the coolness of the metal; you slowly run your forefinger over the smooth nubs of pearls, then quickly draw your nail across them so it makes a noise like a minute xylophone.

Traffic lights blink red and are ignored; the city is nonstop, perpetually in motion. You glimpse it as you are driven fast between the electric fences of home and the tall gates of the mall, the school, the swimming pool. Barriers, walls, concrete, fences. In the evenings you watch your mother tense up at the soft sound of a car engine beyond the walls; stiff and alert, listening hard for any noise, any signal of danger. You come to realise you are living life inside a cage.

f) Your maid’s face: wide smile, the whitest teeth. Her name is Lucky.

She is there at the school gates; a line of maids, a row of pastel uniforms, white collars starched and neat against their dark skin. They stand in the shade of the Cape beech tree, flapping fans, weight on one leg, hips jutting. The grass beneath their feet is parched and brown, scattered with a litter of spiky beechnut shells.

You run to her, press your cheek against her thigh, try to stretch your arms around her but you can’t. She smells clean, like fresh washing powder and something else, something cooking, bread baking. You squeeze your eyes tight shut, and hear the laughter of the other maids.

“Hey, Lucky, there’s the boy for you!”

“Make sure that one grows up good, you be sure!”

She clucks away their laughter, runs her big rough hands over your face, tousles your hair.

“He’s a good boy, this one,” she says and she picks up your school bag, loops your blazer over her arm. Your sister joins you; she is quiet, stands off to one side, eyes screwed up against the sun, blond hair tufted, fluffy as a chick.

You walk home, a short walk along the wide sidewalk. Other maids walk with other children, some hold hands, some walk far apart. Lucky carries a white umbrella that shades her face. Your sister asks if she can have a turn and Lucky laughs and says, “No child, your skin’s fair enough as it is,” and reaches to stroke her hair. Your sister frowns and wiggles away from her hand.

The electric fences cast shadows on the pavement, stripes of light and dark, up ahead your sister hop-skip-jumps between them. You hang back, holding Lucky’s hand. One of your shoulders is covered by the shade of the umbrella, the other by the shadow of the wall; your face is hit by the sun, your eyes are downcast on the scrubby grass that grows by the base of the wall. All sorts of treasures lie there. Your pockets are always full of a jumble of things that you’ve found: a marble, a shiny pebble, the lid of a coke bottle bent back and sharp, a paper rose torn and sorry looking, the plastic strip from a milk bottle that you chew on until Lucky stops you.

“Boy, you’ll be the death of me,” she says, and laughs, when she finds your treasures rattling around in the washing machine. Sometimes, at night, when you lie in bed you think you love her more than your mother and you worry about what this means. You worry so much it makes your tummy sore, and you creep into your mother’s bed where she sleeps alone, always alone.

g) A morning, a school morning. Your mother driving. You and your sister. A traffic jam.

Beggars weave between cars, selling lighters or coat hangers, Coca Cola bottles with rusted caps that leave a stench of rat-piss on your hands. They hold up their children to the windows, with cupped hands outstretched and streaming noses, babies tied to chests with rags. Your mother insists that the windows are tightly closed, the air blown from the dashboard barely makes a stir.

You are hot, sticky, the seatbelt is digging into your throat. You are thirsty, your mouth feels thick. Outside, the world is awash with shimmering heat that rises up from the licorice-soft tarmac.

A man moves towards the car. You watch.

Your mother watches.

Your mother pushes her handbag underneath the seat without taking her eyes from the man.

You and your sister stare as he approaches. He is wearing shorts and one of his legs is thin, thin as if it has no flesh at all, a bone wrapped tightly in brown onion skin. He is limping, his whole body is leaning and jerking. In his arms he holds a little girl, her hair is thick and curly, held up in two round bunches above her head. Her dress is pink, ruffled, filthy.

“Jesus Christ,” your mother says as he reaches the car. He holds the girl up to the glass, she is sucking her finger exactly as your sister does. Your mother is scrabbling for change in the dashboard, and then holds up her hands to say, I’ve got nothing. The man shakes his head and holds the girl up against your window, she gazes in at you, finger in mouth, with eyes that are big and brown and frilled. They are Kike’s eyes. You look away until you sense the man move off to try another car. You see your mother’s bright blue eyes in the rear-view mirror, watching you. You look away.

The traffic begins to move off slowly, the car is edging forward when your mother says, “Fuck, oh fuck!” You don’t know what is wrong, what has happened. You crane your neck to see if the man has come back.

Then you see it, two lanes to the left, up ahead, beneath a grey car: blood, pooling blood, a glimpse of pink on the road, two very small bare feet, soles blackened with dirt.

No one is getting out of their car.

Horns are blaring, the traffic is still moving in your lane. The man with the strange leg is screaming, you know it though you cannot hear him above the traffic horns—his face is stretched out, long features, a tableau of tears.

Your mother is crying, your sister is crying, though you don’t think she has seen what has happened. You are thinking about feet, two very small dirty feet, and Kike. Kike’s eyes.

Your mother pulls in at the next police station, and gets out. She tells you to stay where you are. She is gone for a long time, and your mouth grows drier as the car gets hotter. When she gets back she opens each door in turn and hugs you both, tightly so it makes you cough.

That night, she comes into your room and sits on your bed and smoothes out the creases on the sheets with the back of her hand. She doesn’t look at you, her face is wet; she takes your hand and asks if you saw what happened, if you want to talk. You said no, you didn’t see, you don’t want to talk.

But you think about her a lot, that girl: her soft brown eyes merge with Kike’s in your mind so that you can’t think of one without the other. You think about seeing blood through the oily ripple of hot air. You think about the feet; tiny, grubby feet.

h) The hut in the garden, Lucky’s Zozo. Small and ramshackle, made of wood, no bigger than your bedroom.

You are not allowed in there at any cost; it is a secret cave where magic happens, you imagine. Your sister sits on the back step of your house and tosses a red ball at it on Saturdays, back and forth, back and forth, a noise as rhythmic as a drum beat.

On Sundays Lucky goes home. You cry and cry. Your mother gets cross.

“Hush now, boy, I gotta see my other children,” Lucky tells you, and your heart beats fast when you think of those other children. Your mother presses blackened bananas and shriveled peppers into her hands as she leaves, “Here, Lucky, you take these.” Lucky puts them in her basket and walks down the garden path without looking back, as the white washing flaps on the lines, leaping trousers and jittering shirts.

i) A word, whispered.

You listen to the grown-ups talk in shops, at friends’ houses, and the teachers at school. You hear their anger, you sense their fear. You hear an unfamiliar word breathed softly: Kaffir. A word that separates people, sets them apart. Everyday you hear it. There is always a new story: a friend of a friend, an acquaintance, a neighbour or teacher robbed, raped, hijacked or shot, and with each story there is always that word on the tip of their tongue.

Endings, so many endings. The roads are treacherous with cars thick with the hot stench of liquor swerving from lane to lane, between minivans brimming with slumped shouldered maids, and pick-up trucks filled with squatting black men with t-shirts torn from backs and wrapped around their faces against the clouds of dust that are kicked up from the road, flung like cattle from side to side as the sun, like sandpaper, rips at their necks.

On TV they talk of truth and reconciliation. Elsewhere, it is always that word. You hear it, you hate it, you cannot escape it.

j) Lucky’s scars, beautiful scars; three on each cheek.

They are straight lines, perfectly even, puckered and dark. Sometimes, as you sit on the sofa and watch TV beside her, she lets you touch them, silently. She doesn’t take her eyes from the television; the cool light from the screen bathes you both, it is a flickering blue fire in her eyes. You trace your fingers over the scars, they are hard black ridges. Your sister sits on the other sofa, legs splayed, sucking her finger, twirling her hair with the other hand, watching you with tapered eyes.

Once, you asked, “What are they for, Lucky?”

“Boy, they’re part of me.” She spoke of long lost and long ago, her homeland, the place where she belonged, the people she had known.

Late one night, you wake up and Lucky is sitting on the edge of your bed. “Shhh,” she says, and strokes your face with her chapped hand. Her eyes are wet, silver in the moonlight, the shadows from the burglar bars divides her into neat sections. She leans forward, and you watch a ripe, winking tear hanging from her chin.

“You grow up kind, boy, you hear me? You grow up kind.” The bed springs up without her weight, rising up to fill her absence. She closes the door quietly behind her and is gone.

* * *

But all these things grow vague, a confetti of memories settling in your mind. The siren has stopped, the voices are receding.

“…shot him and then just—”

“He’s going—”

“…get him to the—”

“It’s too late!”

The faces have faded, you are left alone. The blizzard in your brain has finished falling; you are walking in the silent numbness of freshly fallen snow. You are starting to warm up, to feel better, you can barely feel the cold metal anymore. You look up at the sky, up at the hushed stars that swim, swoop, soar through the night air. There is the sound of crickets, far away.

Rosie Hopegood grew up in the south of England but has spent the past few years living in Spain and France. She is studying for a masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, and is currently working on a novella. Her fiction has appeared in The Inkwell and 94 Creations (forthcoming). She has been selected as a writer of emerging talent to read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. For more about Rosie, please visit her blog: http://rosiehopegood.wordpress.com/

Read Rosie Hopegood’s comments on Ryan Werner’s “Trace.”

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Notes from Susan Frith, Associate Editor

The rich imagery of this piece captivated my senses. I like how the author uses the discrete childhood memories of the dying protagonist to reflect on the costs of living on either side of the barriers in apartheid-era South Africa. Nice job!

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Comments on this story by William Meffert, author of “Dakota”

I thought the story was beautifully written, especially the description of his childhood and details of his home and family and the special love for Lucky.




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