The Things that Matter
Pale and bloody in the evening, the vlei is a new-born creature, ripples suckling, tugging at the light, gulls whimpering in the dark. Here, a place denied and unvisited for years and years, pebbles knocking my shoes, I’ll never forget your limp (toe amputated in World War II).
Recalling that wound opens up the gash of this vlei and our nearby plot, pungent with old stories, bleeding these words from a here now more than thirty years deep in the mind in a hush of nests, mud and reeds.
Veins of mauve in water, bruises in clouds, every conceivable tone of colour exhausted by memory, by the meaning of memory, from the blue smoke held in your lungs to the bewildered, frightened grey of your eyes as your body crumbled in those final years. A life emptied by drink, like the family, I’m afraid, so often lashed out at. It all merges with the bark, the soil, the meniscus of life in this place.
Your shadow, iron, rusted to grit, still fashions a son’s soul, its way of meaning things.
You’d stagger when tired or drunk, even fall, that limp a way to recall you through a weakness, a chink onto other faults … often you swayed up to your son, snarled, Are you a man?, taught the boy the art of not speaking, not wishing to hear, of turning away to a drift of salty mud, pollen and gulls.
There, here, was learned the art of silence, of listening to the moon and the whistling reeds, awakening how words, which cut, can also heal. Here, there, the things which matter mend into one place, hours fill with the same old reeds, the moon, the footfalls, your distant shouts. You become what you are: you helped make what I am.
So what’s recollected is now. To wonder what you’d felt that day, air suddenly squeezed from the lungs as you fell gasping on a street in Benoni, and took a last look at a pair of creased hands, the palms softening under a puzzled, blurred, fading gaze (Please, a helpful stranger was told, I don’t want … my wife to see … me … not like this — ),
Is to wonder at the things which matter: love gentling the fingertips, moistening lips and eyes, that last bright laugh of a husband and wife together.
And what’s recalled is here. Pebbles blindly tap the shoes in the near-dark like the few words of care you gave. The memory becomes meaning. Your world’s gone, ending in 1981. Your world’s mine. And here I stand, half a world away in China, with a similar sense of bewilderment, of deep failure. That flight of gulls still skitters off the vlei, flickers, wheels back. Stop and listen to the wing-drummed water and air. They brim with what I know I need to choose to hear; they glimmer with the secrets a child might offer with open hands: a pinch of laughter, rummaged bits of caress and warmth, things that matter. This is what I want to be accountable for, and want to speak, today still turning away from that faraway vlei, back up the path
Into all these lives, some touched, some still to be touched.
Written in New Zealand
The glisten of sun on wired bars and a latch jittering in the wind between two poles nearly forty years ago makes me shiver today. I turn around and see again Dad’s old Peugeot, waiting, stalking, headlights glaring in the dark, the mist a porridge swirling in the glare. The engine ticks and tisks in the stillness, the way he does as he gripes at Mom about me. “Why can’t he open the bloody gate?” My fingers are sore and slip on the wired latch like feet scrabbling over endless ice in a dream. Then Dad’s hands slap away mine, and wrench the wire in mysterious ways. The gate shrieks open. “He’s just a boy, he wanted to help,” Mom pleads as the car grinds through the gateway, tyres grating and boiling up dust and pebbles as the car charges up to the rondavel we are holidaying in. I nurse the bruises on my hands and close the gate
As today, in another country, I open it onto fields and pines that mint these valleys half the earth away: once hinted at in a dusty moonlight.