The word fed me, and I was made strong. You know what I mean. You open a book, any book, and as you read, you feel yourself growing, losing that see-throughness. You feel yourself sharpening your edges, rising like dough in an oven warm as your mother’s belly. You become a little less like cellophane, or spliced film; a little more like you. You’re something solid now, developing, a body with skin and hair and teeth. A person. You’re not invisible anymore, and now those men are asking if you’re made of glass, craning their necks to see the rugby game, ignoring the skill with which you balance their Black Labels on the tray, choosing instead to hurl at you a steady stream of abuse.
“Hey man! Was your father a glass maker, hey?”
I grit my teeth. I duck my head. I place their drafts on the table. I remember the word.
It begins with a newspaper he leaves lying around. Then his magazines. Then a magazine I buy myself with its cover of blonde hair and sad serifs. And as if suddenly awakened to a hunger I wasn’t aware I had, I devour Encyclopaedia Britannica (H and L), one book of obsolete languages, a thin volume of African poetry, two How To Guides (photography and amateur astronomy), three novels (Lessing, Woolf, Schreiner), four memoirs of varying quality, five paperbacks by ghost writers, six supernatural thrillers with questionable cover art and seven short stories as plump and ripe as cherries. As if transformed by witchcraft I remember myself as a long-lost friend. I have a tongue. I make decisions. I tell him no – tell him straight, that it’s the last time and I’m done and tired of his shit. I tell him I will not be returning. That he can beg but I am through. That he cannot rescue me from the lounge floor he put me on. That he cannot caress my wet cheeks because my tears are of his own making. That the black hole grown wide inside me will engulf us both if he doesn’t leave. Not even for our kids, not those arms reaching up towards me like I’m the Madonna. As if all we have is prayer. No. This revolutionary word. A woman’s turning point. Some rare astrological conjecture by which a person might read how little I care, this word that I now employ with zest, as if every line I ever read is all strung together like fairy lights to help and light the way.
I stuff paperbacks into my handbag. I read during my lunch break, a cigarette between my lips, wiping away the ash that falls on to the page. I read after work, when the kids are in the bath, and I’m stirring macaroni in the pot. I read, and I read, and I read, and I can’t help but hear every author’s voice in my head. Extra consciences. These voices and their accents: American, Nigerian, English, South African, Irish and Ghanaian, Jamaican, Honduran, Chilean and Zimbabwean, filling me like baked bread, white and soft as cloud, soaking up salted butter like sunlight. I become opaque, full of song. The empty spaces of my life fill with stars, and I am able to think clearly. I wonder if it’s like this for other women. If they too have been lead by books to believe that they matter. That they’re real.
I’m not going back. Not now that there is bread in my belly, and sugar on my tongue, not now that I’m being whipped to dizzying heights like soft peaks of cream.
Your mamma had the hand-held one, right? Ja, mine too! Two oval blades swishing ’round each other like figure skaters carving runes into ice. Like pistons in a motorcar. Round-round, round-round. Wooden handle. Red paint chipped away where she held it tight Sunday after Sunday. Apple crumble, melktert, melva pudding, chocolate cake. My mother could do it all, and all is what she did. Never had a Sunday without tea while she lived. Sweet, milky rooibos. Two sugars even though my Dadda said it’d rot my teeth (she put it in any way, when I smiled and asked her with my eyes). Tea as sweet as her hands and that peach fuzz skin around her chin, a slice of something delicious on a secret side plate too. Side plates with identical siblings quiet and quivering in the cupboard. Princess Anne and Royal Dalton crockery all matching and pretty like Granny’s was. England holding us hostage at every meal. My mother fed her love to me in her cooking. She never told me she loved me, not once. But her every meal held tight that promise: I’ll never leave you. A recipe I’d learn in my own time.
When I was a child, my mother would skip work on the hottest of hot summer days. She’d call her boss and blame a migraine. She had seen its violet aura shimmer before her eyes so that it seemed as if hot static had attached itself to the orbit of her vision. This is what she told her boss, Derrick, a man of small mind and even smaller patience. Technically he’d have to let her, she’d say, the heat is thickening fast and the temperature has climbed to 40 degrees. Legally he couldn’t force her to go to work. He’d sigh and slam down the receiver in her ear and I could see him rolling his eyes and threatening to throttle that stupid woman if she pulled her shit one more time. I thought her mad, really, to risk her job to stay home with me, while I missed arithmetic and spelling, and klanke and isiXhosa, but she could teach me those things when I was older. What did I need to spell at my age, anyway? For what purpose would I need to employ Afrikaans or isiXhosa?
She’d shimmy across the lounge and into the kitchen, drop down to her knees and crawl under the small kitchen table. Her legs were long and tanned like a tennis player’s, and she’d hum whatever song came to mind, no care about staying in tune. She’d emerge from behind the paisley-patterned plastic sheeting with a watermelon the size of a baby in her arms. And then she’d walk outside with this great green fruit balanced on her hip and a knife in her hand, and we’d set ourselves by the swimming pool, dangling our beer bottle legs into the shallows. With every bite, mosquito larvae and frog spawn fizzed around our ankles as if we’d dropped a Super C in coke. These little flies and gnats stirring themselves into sticky clumps that itched and bothered me so much I scratched open my skin. And then when we had eaten enough to satisfy thirst and hunger, Mom would plait my hair until I was sleepy enough for a nap, and take me off to the little copper bathtub in our room, on the bare concrete she’d painted in several shades of blue. She’d wash me with lavender she pulled out of our neighbour’s front garden and kept in a pillow slip, rubbing it into my skin. After washing me, she’d take me into her bed, where we’d lie together in the generous sun of the afternoon, the sky and her moon, drifting off together, as if in the same boat, towards the sun on the horizon.
This was the sort of thing she did. A fearless, wild woman, who wrote her private laws into the fabric of her life.
If we are defined by our actions then my mother’s would paint her as radio static, as a butterfly tattoo, as a dolphin frieze on our shared bedroom walls. She’d be immortalised in the style of the Hindu god Ganesha, all Technicolor and combustible; in her hands a whisk, a beer, a knife, a mirror. A hairbrush in which to belt Whitney Houston. A tripwire. The wooden spoon she smacked me with, the wooden spoon she used to stir my Jungle Oats. And you could never be mad at her, not for long.
When I pray to submit my prayers to Archangel Michael this is all that I can say:
please can it all be okay,
please can it all be okay,
please can it all be okay.
But he doesn’t reply in time. He never does, and I chide myself for thinking I could rely on a man. Not even an angel, not even an angel in red. Instead, I read. The word becomes my fill.
BUFFALO CITY MUNICIPAL LIBRARIES
This item must be returned on or before the last date shown below. Renewals can be done telephonically.
Aan die leser
To the reader
kwi- Gonubie Library
This writer came to the library th’other day. (My cousin’s the librarian. She told me to come along.) The writer was a lady called E.K.M. which I found strange, but I listened to her anyway. E.K.M. Dido. This woman, who took Afrikaans in her hands and made it beautiful, that phlegmy language of my father, that shouting accelerating wheel spinning tongue that smelled like exhaust fumes and shimmered like petroleum, looked me straight in the eye. I sat in the back row and she looked straight at me, I swear, and said that readers are beloved. Beloved. She said that words open worlds, and as the words moved from her tongue into the room I felt myself swell like a sponge filled with water.
After the library, I walk into a coffee shop my cousin used to run. She fucked this fat guy for money to keep the place open, and she and her two kids lived in the back room, which she swore was haunted. They slept in this double bed, all three of them laid out like slotted spoons, praying and hiding under the duvet when the windows rattled and the cupboard doors flew open without a reason. The fat guy was awful, enormous, with this purple birth mark that covered half his face like a stain. I never much liked men, fat men least of all. Too much of them, you know? Could imagine being swallowed up by their enormous bodies, their squelching over you like an overgrown mollusc. I order a filter coffee for which I don’t pay.. The sugar ends up in my handbag, and the salt too, and then the dinky All Gold that the table next to mine leaves. I slip out before my bill, and wonder what my children will eat when I’m gone.
I channel my dead mother and look for signs everywhere. Pennies, white feathers, strange cloud formations, songs on the radio, repetitive numbers. 444 means everything is unravelling as it should. 111 means the angels are near. If you look for the signs you’ll find them, you know? Angels are everywhere.
I was never one for baking like my mother but now that I’m reading so much I’ve discovered women like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Bessie Head. Maya Angelou. Women who carry you when your legs have grown weak. Help you through the fire to the other side where you’d buried your hope. And even though I’ve never read very well, even though I stutter over every word, sound choking in my mouth like a spluttering car engine, even though as a child my teachers plastered my end of term report cards with D’s and E’s and my classmates laughed when I went for extra lessons, it is my thing. I hold each letter in my mind until it turns the right way, and cracks open its story, egg yolk bleeding across the page.
Have you seen the salad bar at the Vincent Spar? I once stole a chicken salad from there, this shit called cous cous and smoked chicken bits, the ones you get at Woollies (I’ve seen them in my landlady’s basket), but they let me off because I fucked the boss man’s son and they didn’t want to cause a scene. Ag, you know white people in this town, hey? Dirty as the scum under my nails but they’re always dressing their shit up in perfume. My late mother always told me, Deidre, they may think they’re better than us just because of where we live but we are just as good as any rich people.
You know when you are destined for more? Sure, I could scrap in my lot. Leave the kids with their father. Work at the panel beaters like my sister; turn my hand at secretarial work or some receptionist gig. Was a teller at Spar once, but I got the numbers all wrong and couldn’t work the till and I hated the way the manager stared at my tits. Once he grabbed my crotch at closing time but I took his hand in my mouth and bit it until his blood filled my mouth.
And then I wrote his wife to tell her exactly what her no-good husband was getting up to at work. I dropped that letter in his post-box and who knows, maybe that’s the reason he came to work with a black eye and a gash over his forehead.
I lost my job that day, but he never did touch me again.
You know, every time I left him for a little while, every time I was alone in a rented room or a friend’s granny flat or a bathroom stall in the mall loo, each time I had a little time and felt a little more like myself, I heard the words from the books. S’true, I swear it! I could hear those words like Ms Morrison was sitting next to me whispering softly from Sula. Like E.K.M. had taken me to tea and was assuring me I would survive. Speaking to me – to me –personally, like, like a friend might, or someone who really, really cares. These reassurances as soft but sure as wagtail birds. Like water lapping at my sides. Soaking into my skin. Gentle as osmosis.
You’re okay, their soft voices say. You’re going to be okay.
I read Margaret Atwood. I start with Alias Grace, and then, I’m reading Surfacing. Before you know it I’ve devoured her poetry, too. She makes me feel something I know all too well. She makes me afraid. Except this fear is different. I am afraid I might fall through the spaces in her sentences, fall down some dark hole where civilisation ends; a hole in the ozone layer of Canadian wilderness, a blank space in bureaucracy, in a place where my ovaries are taken for gold and women have cat’s eye marbles for eyes.
I am eating books, eating books like they are bread. I am siphoning sunshine from their pages. Each part of me is filling up with helium. Anymore and I’ll pop, I swear it. I’ll float up to the ceiling and burst right open, the life of me splattering across this stupid lounge suite I hate so much.
I’m remembering things. Stuffs I’ve tried to forget. These days I’m thinking of a lot of things I’ve pretended aren’t there. And I’m hearing voices. I’m reading so much I’m narrating my own life. I wake up in the morning and hear the quality of light being described in Atwoodian detail. March through the day with the punch of a line written by Petina Gappah. I’m holding all these women in my head, like there’s a meeting and they’ve decided I’m a venue. I’m infested with writers, with ideas, by these words I didn’t know could make so much. Make me so much. Imagine it! Maybe I am a little crazy, just like he says. Yes, I’m more than likely a lot more than just a little crazy. Hearing voices. Ha! Thinking my life is some story. A book. As if anyone would pick it up to read. But you know what? You want to know something? I’m happy. Each time I’m falling asleep and I hear that low voice, that one like a green river opening up into the sea, the one that says it’s not so bad, he’s not so bad, I’m not so bad, I’m not so afraid anymore.
I’ve never been the sharpest tool in the shed. Been told that my whole life. But now I feel like there’s something else that matters, something that I might have, a thing that sets me apart. That might make me special. I write a letter to myself, detailing all the things I’d buy if I was my lover. Nail polish in a pinky shade of red, a new tube of lipstick, shoes that aren’t so worn. And books, so many books. Rooms of books! I finish the letter and sign it with a kiss and then I slip it inside my pillow, breathing in its love, letting it send me to my dreams.
You’re looking at me like I’m mad. And that’s okay. Maybe I don’t care so much anymore. Silly, I’ve heard you say, time and time again. Foolish, to believe a voice from a book, as if you could even know what the author really sounds like when she reads. Ridiculous, absurd, I guess, to think that books could even talk. Yes, you’re right. It’s crazy talk, this, pretending I’ll leave. But me, well, me being as gullible as I am, you know me, I kinda believe them. I think that I want to, you know. When I’m lying in bed and I can’t sleep and he’s snoring again and it all feels so, so hopeless, so pointless, they’re there. You’re going to be okay, Deidre. You’re already more than you were yesterday. Each day another drop, they tell me, as if I’m filling up, like a dam waiting for the flood. Ha, voices! I couldn’t tell a soul, besides you. They’d have me thrown in St Marks, and then what? What good am I inside a loony bin, huh, inside a place like that? I’m treading a thin line and these women aren’t helping the cause. Well I tell myself that, you know. I tell myself it’s so fucking ludicrous.
And inside, well inside, and don’t tell anyone, you’ve got to swear you’ll keep it to yourself this time, not like that thing that happened with Rob, remember, you told your cousin Dolores and she told my in-laws, and then everyone except your Uncle Gladwin knew and only because he’s deaf and Ma hadn’t replaced the batteries in his hearing aid. Well, if you must know, I’m happy, which is not usually something women like us are able to lay claim to. I’ve been miserable so long I mistook sadness for being tired and never bothered to do anything about it. But now, each time I’m feeling blue, each time I’ve put my babies down and he’s gone off, somewhere, inside himself, to a place I’ll never reach, some far-off planet, some other Earth, when it’s just me awake and alive in the house, I don’t feel as alone as I used to . For once I feel I have company. I’ve become my own company, if you will, and I’m a friend I like to have around. Someone I’d like to get to know. For the first time, I feel as if my body has taken real form, that when I go about my day there is a shadow echoing each flick of wrist, every shape I take, the proof of me in my twin silhouette painting herself across walls and floors like a sunset. I can be sure that when I walk into a room there wafts behind me the faintest scent of patchouli and Vaseline and cigarette smoke, a smell that singles me out from any other woman like me. I feel like I really, really exist in this world.
I’m not denying that there are days when I dream of leaving the earth, ascending in a slow wave up to the knotted sky. Each day is a test of faith. And I might be going fucking bananas, with all this talk of famous ladywriters telling me I’m fine and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that at all. I’d probably wonder the same if our roles were reversed. I mean, who would believe it, you know, that you could hear voices and not be completely, utterly insane? Given our family history, it’s not really the kind of thing I should be dropping into conversation and I can just imagine the face you’re pulling now, the eyes rolling back in your head to look for some sensible thing to say to me. But I don’t need dissuading.
Let me put it to you this way. Remember how we were taught to pray as children, kneeling, heads bowed, hands skyward, the mouths of our palms tingling with the Holy Spirit? Remember how that sensation grew and spread all through our bodies, until our skins were alive with electricity, every pore an open ear to the word that roared in our veins? How we were seized by something molten, the divide between this world and the next dissipating into something that can only be described as sound? How free we were, in those moments when we did that strange dance we could never quite remember, the sheer relief of giving ourselves to something greater than us, how it filled our eyes with tears so that everything seemed as if it had been smudged a bit, even the Jesus statue and his baby angels almost glowing as if suddenly illuminated by a light only we could see. And how sheepish we felt, after, when the congregation had jumped to its feet and laid hands on our shivering bodies, how embarrassed we were to wake in pools of sweat both foreign and familiar, not understanding how it is we came to be writhing on the floor in a hall far too small to let God in? That for a moment we were powerful, visible, to the point of holding the gaze of an entire hall of believers, that we ourselves became the voice and the reason, the purpose. That in these strange turns we were more than daughters. More than girls. More than the sorry men we’d one day marry.
How light we felt. How suddenly renewed. And embarrassed, perhaps, by how public it all was. Yet what a joy it was to feel that sure, to be clear and marine. How wild it was to ring out like bells, to know those long, clean notes in our hollow centres. What beauty it was to hear that voice, and to know it true. How happy we were to hear it speak.
About the Writer:
Megan Ross is a writer, poet and journalist from East London in South Africa. She is the winner of the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction and the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. She is a runner up for both the National Arts Festival Short.Sharp Award and the Short Story Day Africa Award. Her writing has featured in Poetry Pacific, New Contrast, New Coin, The Kalahari Review, Aerodrome, Itch and Prufrock. She has written for the Mail and Guardian, Fairlady, Glamour, GQ and O, the Oprah Magazine. Her first book, Milk Fever, is forthcoming from uHlanga.