By Nerine Dorman
Annetjie and I take turns carrying the bag of Ma’s ashes. The bag isn’t very heavy, but our arms are tired and our feet stumble over every rock and ditch. The sky is empty, like our tummies, and sometimes when I look up, I am dizzy like I will stumble and fall up, and up, and up, and never stop falling, empty like the wind. Annetjie says I’m stupid, and that won’t happen. Our world is a ball that keeps turning like when you have a bucket of water and you’re turning it round and round and round so the water doesn’t fall out.
But I’m so thirsty, and I don’t want to think about water.
There is not much shade and my skin is angry like I’ve been stung all over by wasps. I wanted to stay by the little river where the poplar trees are. I caught a tadpole there and the mud felt good on my legs where the thorns bite me. But we must go, go, go. West to the sea, says Annetjie. Where the harbour lies. Before she went to the angels, Ma told us we must go west along the Big Road, away from the city. We must not talk to strangers. We must hide when we hear them because they will hurt us, because we are small. Then, when we get to the sea there will be the boat that will take us home across the ocean to where Auntie Ida lives with Uncle Ben. We must tell the people we are Ma’s daughters. We must not say anything about Pa because he is a bad man, and people will want to hurt us too.
When I think about Pa my throat is tight and I want to cry, but Annetjie says I mustn’t waste my tears on him. I need my tears inside me because we are so thirsty, and we don’t know when we’ll find something to drink again. Annetjie says I must stop asking if we’re nearly there yet because we’ll get there when we get there. Annetjie says they will have raspberry ice lollies on the boat, and if I’m a good girl and walk all the way, then I’ll have as many raspberry ice lollies as I want to stain my lips red.
Thinking about the ice lollies makes my tongue thick and heavy, and it sticks to the roof of my mouth. I part my lips, about to ask Annetjie about the boat and the nice people there, but she’s stopped on the rise, her hand shading her eyes.
“Hush.” She yanks my hair so hard that I bite back a yelp.
We’ve been walking forever through old farmlands. Last year when Ma was only a little bit sick and there was still petrol for Pa’s car, we came driving here and the fields were all canary yellow and green grass. The wind smelled like cow poo when we passed the farmsteads, and the aunties’ washing made flags in the wind. Now everything is dust and stalks grazed down to the roots. Every now and then we pass bones. Not all the bones belong to sheep or goats and Annetjie says, “Don’t look,” then I scrunch my eyes tight until Annetjie lets out a breath so I know it’s okay to open my eyes again.
Annetjie stands like a soldier, and when I reach her I can also see the dark green trees through the shimmer haze—a village of mud huts and roofs like pointed hats. Aunties are working in the maize field and little chickens chase each other in circles.
My tummy rumbles, and I can taste the mielies already, the fat kernels dripping with butter and crunchy salt that pops between my teeth. Maybe the aunties will give us fresh, cold milk to drink too.
Annetjie pulls on my arm, drags me along, away from the village. “We must go around.”
“What?” I cry. “Why?”
“Those people will also throw stones at us,” Annetjie says. “Remember like last time?”
I stumble after her, my disappointment crawling up out of my stomach.
“We don’t want you to get hurt again.”
When we ran forever ago, the children threw stones at us and called us dumb umlungu. Annetjie won’t tell me what umlungu means but I think it has something to do with Pa because the bad people were calling him that when they came to fetch him. The cut on my forehead is still angry and hurts a lot, and often Annetjie stares at me with a frown.
“We must hurry,” she says. “I don’t know if there is another boat soon.”
“Where are you two girls going?” a woman asks.
We both squeak with fright because we didn’t see the big brown auntie walking towards us. She must’ve been coming round the koppie, and she’s carrying a big bundle of sticks on her head.
Annetjie pulls me behind her, her grip on my wrist so hard I have to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself from whimpering. Annetjie always says you must never cry in front of strangers.
“None of you business,” Annetjie snaps at the auntie.
The woman’s smile is big and white, her skin shiny and dark, and if Annetjie’s sharp response bothers her at all, she doesn’t let on. “Two little girls, sunburnt and with ragged dresses… Mmm? Where are your parents?” She sets down her load with a sigh.
“We’re fetching medicine for our ma,” Annetjie replies.
I clutch Ma’s ashes to my chest. “But—”
Annetjie pinches the skin of my wrist hard enough for me to swallow a whimper.
But Ma is with the angels. My throat grows thick. Why is Annetjie lying to the auntie?
The auntie nods, as if Annetjie’s words are heavy stones.
“Would you like some pap, girls?” She dips her head towards me. “And that is a nasty cut on your sister’s brow. I have some medicine I can put on it to make it better.”
“We really need to be going.” Annetjie tugs on me hard enough for me to stumble.
The auntie clucks her tongue, shakes her head, the openness fled from her features.
“You’re not fooling me, little girl. Your sister is hurt, and you are both running from trouble. I shouldn’t bother with you if you’re ungrateful little dogs, even with all the troubles. Come with me. Go. It doesn’t matter.”
She lifts her bundle of sticks and just like that, the nice auntie turns her back on us and continues on her way to her village.
My tummy turns in on itself and growls, and after all the walking that we’ve done today, and the day before, and the days before that makes my knees fold. I sink onto the ground clutching Ma’s ashes, and I let the tears go. I cry great, heaving sobs that rattle my chest and squeeze my throat.
I can’t tell Annetjie that this kind auntie reminds me of the aunties back home who used to bath me, brush my hair and tell me what a pretty little doll I am. If I do, Annetjie will pinch me and yell at me that we can’t talk to those people because of what they did to Pa.
The auntie mutters to herself in her own language then says to my sister, “Come, girlie, no one will hurt you. We are good people here. Come have some food. Let me look at your sister’s wound.”
A moment hangs, and the shimmery voices of the boomsingertjies scree-scree-scree in the scraggly gum trees nearby. My tears sting my cracked lips, and I suck in enough breath to hold back the next sob. I mustn’t cry. I must be a big girl like Annetjie. But it’s so hard, and I can’t anymore. I’m empty like the sky and the world is so big and we’re going to walk forever and ever and never reach the sea.
And I want a raspberry ice lolly.
I can almost taste the sugar sweetness, feel the tart little ice crystals between my teeth before they melt.
Annetjie pulls me up onto my feet, takes Ma’s bag. Her hand is firm in mine, the skin rough, but she doesn’t let go. We drunk-stumble after the auntie. Everything hurts—my head, the throbbing of my skin where the thrown stone cut me. My feet. My legs. The sides of my lips where my tears sting. My arms are empty without the bag of Ma’s ashes so I take the bag back from Annetjie.
The village is another world—orderly rows of vegetables, furrows gurgling with crystal clear water. The goats are white with brown patches, their slit eyes like dragons’ as they glare at us then bleat at our passing. The auntie—she says her name is Miriam Arendse (like the bird, and I try to imagine her with a wicked, hooked beak but can’t)—guides us past the rusted corrugated sheets of the palisade that bristles with wicked tangles of razorwire.
Even here. There is always danger.
She says this place is not like the city, and they’re not hungry, like the people we have left behind. The women here are big and round and soft. The men don’t look like walking skeletons with skulls for eyes. Children are playing with skipping ropes and a ball made from patches of leather. They stop and stare at us as we pass, and I stare right back at them. Annetjie looks straight ahead of her as if none of this is real.
Auntie Miriam has a house by the kraal where a big white-and-black cow whisks at flies. The auntie’s home is a pretty little cottage made from mud with a thatch roof. Inside smells like the Cobra polish the aunties back home used, and there is a brass praying hands picture hanging over the small dining table with the whitest crochet tablecloth I’ve ever seen.
“Will you tell me your names?” she asks as she stirs up the embers in the hearth.
“We don’t tell our names to strangers!” snaps Annetjie, who stands by the door not quite willing to step over the threshold like I have.
Auntie Miriam clucks a little, like a hen, and does that pursing of the lips, but that is all; she doesn’t ask our names again and I can see she has some angry words hiding on her tongue. But she dishes us cold krummelpap with a red sauce. I never liked krummelpap back in the Before—Pa always says that was what kaffirs ate. All I know is that the K-word is bad (Ma always said). But I don’t mind the krummelpap now because my stomach is all hollow.
“Don’t eat so fast,” Auntie Miriam says to us. “You will make yourself sick.”
Annetjie glares at her and shovels the food into her mouth. She isn’t even using the spoon. I can’t see her chewing. She makes me think of a dog that is defending its bone from the other dogs. If she starts growling, I won’t be surprised.
“You don’t have manners, girl,” she says to my sister. “Is that what they teach you in the city?”
“We don’t come from the city,” my sister retorts.
“Of course you don’t.” Auntie Miriam gives a soft snort of laughter, as if dealing with rude girls is something that doesn’t bother her.
I keep my head down, take smaller bites. Auntie Miriam is right about me getting a sore tummy if I eat too fast. I chew each mouthful slowly until the krummelpap slides down my throat all smooth even if it tastes like snot. And I use the spoon. It is dented and scratched, and there is an H engraving on the handle. Our family had an L, for Lategan, but I keep that to myself because of Pa.
I am a good girl. I want to make Auntie Miriam happy because she is being nice to us. The aunties back home always said: ‘Don’t make your mother cry up in Heaven.’
“Where are you children going all on your own?” Auntie Miriam asks.
“I…” Annetjie looks down at her empty plate, her shoulders slumped. She doesn’t have anymore bite in her.
Auntie Miriam seems satisfied. “You know…” She fetches a jar from the shelf the measures out a handful of dried leaves. “You can tell me later, how about that?”
Annetjie mumbles a response, but from the way she keeps her hair in her face, I can tell that she doesn’t want us to see that she’s crying.
Auntie Miriam grinds the leaves with pestle and mortar. The sound is a dry chrrrrr-chrrrr.
“I could use the help here,” she says, not quite looking at us. “Ever since my Jakob went to join the Prophet’s Army with my sons, I’ve had too many tasks for one old lady. And Dominee September runs a school here. It is a better place here for children than out in the veld.”
Annetjie screws up her face. “We must go fetch medicine for our ma.”
“I don’t think you have a ma or a pa to fetch medicine for,” Auntie Miriam says. She holds Annetjie’s gaze so she can’t look away.
Annetjie wipes at her nose with the back of her wrist, smearing dirt across her face.
After we have eaten, Auntie Miriam looks at my cut. She shakes her head and clucks her tongue. “What happened here, girlie?”
“Some bad children threw rocks.”
“Lindi!” Annetjie says then claps her hand in front of her mouth because she is always telling me we mustn’t share our names with strangers.
But the auntie isn’t a stranger anymore, is she? Why is she being so nice to us? What does she want?
Yet she doesn’t ask why the bad children threw rocks, and I don’t tell. The green paste she puts on my head stings like a hundred bees and I don’t want to cry but I do. Auntie fetches a bowl of warm water and washes my face and my hands. The lullaby she sings is one Auntie Tessa always used to:
Siembamba, mama se kindjie,
Siembamba, mama se kindjie
draai sy nek om, gooi hom in die sloot;
trap op sy kop dan is hy dood
Ma didn’t like Auntie Tess singing that song, she said it was horrible. But the way Auntie Miriam sings it I know she doesn’t mean the words. Later, we have warm rooibos tea with honey, and Auntie Miriam puts a big black kettle on the stove. We must both bath properly, she says, and while we are busy with the soap and warm water in a bucket, she scrubs at our dresses. We are given two old shirts to wear for nighties. They smell of camphor and make me think of Ma’s cupboard with the coats.
“Tomorrow you will be nice and clean, and we can go see the dominee,” Auntie Miriam says.
By now, Annetjie’s eyes are heavy and she yawns. I yawn too until my jaw clicks, and the auntie smiles.
I help her fold blankets into pallets for us to sleep.
Annetjie wakes me and it’s dark. Long fingers of moonlight slice past the curtains and make Annetjie’s face into a skull.
“Be quiet,” she whispers. “We must go now.”
Where? I want to ask, but when she looks at me so fiercely, I know I must be obedient. She rolls up the two blankets, and gives them to me to hold, along with Ma’s ashes. Our dresses are still damp, but we put them on, and leave the shirts in a pile on the floor. In the kitchen, Annetjie fills a dishcloth with rusks that she removes from a tin on the cabinet.
“What are you doing?” I whisper at her. The door to Auntie Miriam’s bedroom is closed, but what will she think if she sees us fiddling with her things?
“Shhh.” Annetjie glares at me and I shut my mouth.
She takes dried peaches too, and a knife, then motions for me to tiptoe after her. The back door’s latch slides open with only a tiny squeak, and we step into the dusty moonlight. The cold slices right through my thin dress, but I must be a big girl for Ma, and not shiver like a ninny.
I want to ask Annetjie why we’re going in the middle of the night because Auntie Miriam is nice, and we’ll make her sad by doing running away, but the moment I open my mouth, Annetjie presses her finger against her lips.
Quiet little ghosts, we slip from shadow to shadow between the mud brick homes with their pointy roofs. A man with a big knobkerrie walks is walking along the wall. He has a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, but he doesn’t see us when we hide behind a chicken coop. Our breathing is loud, and he passes by so close I can hear the leather creak-creak-creak of his sandals. He still doesn’t see us.
We don’t go out by the gate. Annetjie has found a spot down the side of the wall where a sheet of corrugated metal has come loose enough for us to push through. I don’t cry out when a jagged edge cuts my arm. I’m a big girl.
The blood tickles down my arm and quickly cools as we pad down a goat path, into the riverbed and along the watercourse.
“If we stay with the river, we’ll get to the sea,” Annetjie says. “I don’t think we must stay near the road because there will be more bad people.”
“Did Auntie Miriam say so?”
“Stop this about that woman. She wants us for the child labour.”
I don’t know what she means by those words. They are English words from big school, yet somehow I don’t think the child labour with Auntie Miriam will be so bad. Her arms are soft and she is gentle. Her eyes smile with sadness.
We walk and we walk, and the stars in the heavens turn. The moon sinks big and orange, and Annetjie says we must follow the moon because that’s where the sea is. I tell her that the moon looks like a skull but she smacks me on my sore arm.
My legs and my feet are so sore I’ve stopped feeling them. Every step makes me bite the inside of my cheek but I keep walking. I watch where Annetjie goes. I stop when she does, but we don’t rest long enough to get cold.
When the sky turns the same colour as Ma’s ashes, we halt by the ruins of an old house. The wind slaps at the loose tin and rattles a gutter so that it goes brrrrrrr. Annetjie lets me have a rusk. It’s very hard and I have to suck at it to soften it before I can crumble bits off into my mouth. My tummy stabs me and I lick up every crumb off my fingers and the front of my dress.
I fall asleep right where I’m leaning against my sister. I think maybe she falls asleep too, because when she wakes me, the sun is already sinking to the west. Always to the west.
“C’mon, Lindi, we must go,” Annetjie say as she gives me water from a little flask.
The drink tastes funny, like there was medicine in the container before Annetjie filled it with water. My mouth is so dry and terrible, but Annetjie only lets me have two mouthfuls. Everything hurts, my feet, my legs, my arm where I tore myself on the metal. My head feels as if the children are throwing me with rocks again.
“They can’t throw you with rocks, silly,” Annetjie says as we start walking again. “They throw rocks at you. You must learn to talk properly. You’re not a little girl anymore. You’re not allowed to cry.”
I hold onto Ma’s ashes so hard I can feel little bits of bone poking into my arm. I know there are little bits of bone because I looked when we first took the ashes. The man in the black suit had brought Ma in a little wooden box he left on the dining room table. The aunties were in the kitchen busy making tea, and Pa was in the fancy lounge talking to the dominee about the service. Annetjie was practising the piano. There was no one to stop me from looking.
I don’t know what I was expecting. At that stage when I thought of ashes, I’d imagined the fine stuff that drifts in the air from when you burn paper. Not the gritty stuff like sand. With the bits of bone. I’d held one shard, about the size of the flat of my hand. It was rough and blackened, and it was difficult for me to imagine that this had once been Ma.
That shard is still in the bag. Annetjie says that when we get to the sea we can throw Ma in the ocean where she can be free with the wind and the fish and the dolphins. But I want to keep that one piece of bone because then I can have something of Ma always.
She always called me “my poppie” and would tug her fingers through my hair until I got sleepy. Pa always said I mustn’t bother Ma when she was sick, but I’d sneak into her room. She was very sick near the end, and Pa wouldn’t let her take all her medicine. But Ma said the medicine would let her get to the angels, and can I be a good girl and fetch her medicine where I saw Pa had hid it.
I am a good girl. I don’t cry.
The wind always blows here. The trees are bent-over old men and have no leaves on their one side. We have to squint and there’s sand in my mouth. My lips are paper and taste of old blood. We don’t walk fast because there are thorns. Ugly thorns. They are on flat discs with nasty bits that stick up and burn with pain when they get in my feet. I learn quickly where to step to avoid them.
Still, I won’t cry, even when I see Annetjie is trying to pretend like she’s not wiping tears from the corners of her eyes.
“I’m so tired, Lindi,” she whispers through her cracked lips.
I slip my hand into hers and lead her along the goat paths through the hissing grasses. The wind lashes about us as if he’s an angry man with a stick looking for mice.
The houses we pass are dead, every last bit of roofs and windows taken away so that only their empty eyes watch us pass. Their mouths are filled with broken teeth, like Pa’s when the bad people were finished with him.
The sun roars overhead, baking the ground until the air shimmers with false water always ahead of us. No matter how much we walk, we never reach them.
“It’s not water,” Annetjie tells me. “It’s a mirage. It’s the hot air. Don’t look at it.”
“I know,” I say, but deep in my heart I wish it is water. I am so thirsty, and we finished our water a long, long time ago.
Ma’s ashes are so heavy, like my feet. I don’t feel the thorns much anymore.
Maybe the wind will blow all of me away with the next gust. My hair has come loose from the braids Auntie Miriam made, and gets stuck in my eyes, my mouth with the sand and the taste of salt. My tongue is a worm in my mouth and my head throbs every time I breathe.
Annetjie and I lie down under a bush. I want to ask her about snakes but I’m so tired, the words turn to mud, and I fade into my dreams where Ma is smiling, and she enfolds me in her arms and tells me that nothing, no one can ever take her love away.
We wake when it is evening and the shadows are long. There’s a soft rumbling in the distance, almost like grumbly thunder but growling a bit louder then softer, coming closer then going away. The sea.
Once upon a time, Ma took us to the beach and she bought me ice cream that melted into the cone and over my hands. Everything was sand and stickiness, and when I licked my hand, I tasted sunscreen and sweetness. But that was a long, long time ago.
Ma sat under a striped umbrella and rubbed coconut oil into her legs, brown and smooth. When I grow up I want legs like Ma’s.
Only my legs are knobbly, red and full of sores, bites and scratches. My skin is a bag for the bones that carry me. I’ve seen what’s underneath. I will have a skull too, with round, gaping eye sockets and a grin that smiles with too many teeth. I’m not scared of being dead. I was dead before I was born. I’ll be dead again one day.
But the idea that I will stop being, wink out, scares me. It’s stepping off a cliff and falling forever into nothing. So we walk. Every day. Farther and farther. Because, it’s better than waiting for the bad people to come find us. Better than lying under a bush and waiting to sleep forever.
There is no harbour when we get there. Not anymore. I don’t think it has been here for a very long time. The buildings are dead, walls blackened and tumbled over. The only boats are half-sunken wrecks where black seals bask in the sun. Flippers flapping, sniffy, whiskery noses pointing at the sun.
We stand on the concrete quay that points a finger into the ocean. The sea is grey and green and sucks at the cement dolosse as if they’re sweets. A riot of gannets clouds the air with their never-ending ghharaa-ghharaa-gharaaa. Sharp wings slicing and their wise, mad eyes spearing fish out of the ocean. They fall like blades then shoot up again. Razor wings. Razor beaks. Oh, for razor wings to carry me away across the ocean.
I drink a mouthful of salt water. The sea tastes like tears. It is cold and turns my stomach, and I spit it out again. Yuck. My throat aches, and my arm where I cut it on the metal is all swollen, puffy and gross. White stuff leaks out when I prod at the sore.
Annetjie is a statue, arms held stiffly by her sides, and hands clenched.
I breathe deeply of the cool sea air and poke about in the shallows on the slipway where anemones make flowers in blues and reds. The water is ice and feels good on my feet.
“Annetjie,” I say. “When can we go back?” We’ve finished the last of the food and water, and even Auntie Miriam’s krummelpap is better than eating dreams. Even if the dreams taste of raspberry ice lollies. I don’t think there ever will be raspberry ice lollies ever again. I can still pretend to taste them.
“There is no boat,” she whispers.
I walk to the end of the guano-spattered quay. The concrete is rough under my feet and I stand and stare for a long while as the sun slowly arcs across the sky to where it turns big and red and sinks into the ocean.
The breakers explode against the dolosse, sending up plumes of white froth that spatter me with moisture. Ma’s ashes hiss into the churning water where they vanish into nothing. I only remember about the shard of bone when it’s too late, and it plops into the water with the rest of Ma.
“There is no boat,” I tell Annetjie when I return to her.
She is crouched where she stood all afternoon, huddled over like an ant heap. She doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe.
“Come. Auntie Miriam has krummelpap.”