Jeremy’s brother lived in the southernmost city, where we began our road trip, but I met him last.
After his aunt, his older aunt, who owned a stud farm in the winelands. We had lunch overlooking the paddocks where her racehorses grazed. Silver cutlery, jewelled knuckles, irreplaceable servants. Jeremy wore his suit and uncorked the wine. I wore my mother’s dress, although it showed my wasted leg. The dress I was wearing the night we met in a pub. The one I’d borrowed because my leg was in a plaster cast from the top of my thigh to my toes.
I met Jeremy’s brother after his younger aunt who lived in a thatched house halfway up the east coast. Her cook served supper. Jeremy helped himself to beer. The guest room had a bay window. We left it open.
After his parents in their one-bedroom flat in the sub-tropical city. His birdlike father, if birds avoided eye contact. His mother at the stove in a nylon housecoat. Her hair the same silver grey as her sisters’. The planes of her face the same. The expression on her mouth different. She sat down to eat in her housecoat.
After our week in a mountain cabin. The dried food we rationed to last our stay, the booze he finished the first night. We spent the days hiking. My femur had healed but the muscles were still weak. Once Jeremy disappeared over a crest and I took a shortcut around the side. I slipped, but a bush stopped my fall.
I met Jeremy’s brother at the end of our trip, after we returned to the southernmost city where I was studying. He was older and taller than Jeremy. He had a beard. He loved men. He lived in a row of semi-detached houses two steps up from the road. He offered us whisky and played Nina Simone. And after Jeremy left the city I went back. I climbed the two steps. His brother was always alone. I went back even after I stopped writing to Jeremy. Stopped waiting for a reply. His brother and I never spoke about ourselves or about Jeremy. He asked what I wanted to hear and it was always Nina Simone and I listened without speaking, without understanding.
Imagine Utopia—the interviewer challenges the panel of dystopian authors. Imagine a world beyond capitalism. A new system. A new order. I think of writers who have tried. Obono’s La Bastarda creates a sanctuary in a forest where women can love women and men can love men and people can be people, without having to be men or women; where money does not exist.
I watch the authors on the stage at the book festival while I imagine my Utopia. A world where I understand every language. Where I look into a stranger’s eyes and they look into mine and both our eyes are wide open but soft at the edges. And I speak in the voice I used with my children that day we baked peanut butter biscuits squashed flat with a fork and were so charged with sugar that we walked the circumference of our suburb, far further than my four year old had ever walked. And the boys ran up the low sand dunes and threw themselves down. There were sand dunes then, before the tides swallowed the beaches and people built ramparts of rocks. And my children flung themselves down the dunes in mock collapse. The little one rolling. The older one hitting the sand with one jump. And the little one called out to the cars driving past: Are you a rabbit? And his brother and I laughed until it hurt, because his words made no sense. And my voice that day was light and warm and carefree.
And the stranger will look back at me with the same eyes. And their voice will be warm. But they will be speaking a different language. And I’ll listen like I listen to poets reading in a language I don’t understand—isiXhosa or Xitsonga or Oshiwambo or French or German—and I let the words drift and settle without searching for meaning.
Except in Utopia while I listen to the music of the stranger’s words—while I concentrate on the rhythm and repetition, the rise and fall, the speeding up and slowing down, while I absorb it all—I will understand every word. Not in English. There is no translation app in Utopia. No phone in my hand or device in my ear. There is just me, with my eyes and ears and mouth, and the stranger with theirs, and our voices exchanging music. And it’s almost like that time a poet suddenly switched from isiXhosa to English and said our mouths hold fire and water. And I understood without understanding.
When I flew down to visit my mother in hospital, I found her sitting in bed scrunching her bedlinen into a heap, her fingers plucking at the sheets. She looked up when I touched her arm.
I can’t find my laundry.
You’re in hospital, Mom, you fell and broke your leg, see, you have a plaster cast. Let’s get you back into your gown.
But it’s the wrong way round.
It’s a hospital gown, you’re in hospital, remember?
Your mother and I were good friends.
But you’re my mother, Mom.
I think she always loved someone else.
Still, there were moments of real conversation. There was time to say the things I needed to say.
When my mother was discharged, to her nursing home’s frail care section, she told the nurses she wanted to go home. My sister thought home meant our mother’s private room in the nursing home. I thought it meant the place my father went to after he died.
I flew back to my mother’s bedside after my sister used the word deterioration. After I phoned the frail care.
Should I come?
You can come.
So I should come?
By the time I arrived my mother had stopped speaking. Unless the nurses moved her. She had bedsores from the hospital and the nurses had to move her many times a day, turning her from her left side to her right. Changing her nappy. Lifting her broken leg to change her sheets. Each time she cried out in a little girl’s voice.
Don’t hurt me.
The nurses closed the curtains around her bed so the other women in frail care could not see. But they could hear. And I could hear, standing in the sunlight outside. Her voice went through me.
I spent two days at her bedside, sometimes with her other children, sometimes alone. She smiled when her granddaughter came to visit. Lifted an arm to hug a nurse who fed her prunes and yoghurt, but accepted only a few spoonfuls.
Your mother doesn’t want to eat.
It’s her decision, don’t force her.
My sister phoned from work: How much longer?
How much longer? I asked a nurse.
I can tell, the eyes turn to the sky. She looked at my mother closely. Not long. Perhaps tonight.
But the following morning she seemed better. Alert. Colour in her cheeks. Eyes shining into mine. I kissed her. I wish I could understand what your eyes are saying, Mom.
Her hand reached up to touch her face, to shield her eyes from the light. I rubbed cream into the parchment covering her arms. I brushed her hair. I held her hand when she let me—her wrist like mine but without the flesh. The hollows above her collar bones. The strong nose she hated.
Her eyes were huge in their sockets. She opened them wide, then squeezed them shut, then stared into the middle distance.
I read to her from her favourite book about a World War 2 pilot but she lifted her hand to stop me. I read the daily prayer her priest left and she looked at me. She raised her hand and arm. I leaned over the metal railing of her hospital bed for a hug but her eyes closed. She seemed asleep.
My husband arrived and put his hands gently on her shoulders. She gazed at him. He said we were going to have lunch at the botanical gardens she loved.
I’ll be back in the afternoon, I said.
She stared at me deeply, imploringly.
Was she hungry too? Was she saying: But you said you’d stay with me.
When I returned to her bedside her face was turned towards the wall. Her eyes were sunken, half open. I squeezed between the bed and wall and kissed her but there was no response. She wore her wedding ring on a chain around her neck, and her fingers were clutching the chain, one finger hooked through her ring.
A nurse tried to loosen her grip.
She wants to hold it, I said.
My mother’s eyes met mine.
Would you like some water, I asked. I held a spoon to her lips. She swallowed but refused any more.
I told her we were going to meet our son, her oldest grandson, for supper. I told her everyone sent their love. All her children, all her grandchildren. Although she knew this. I listed the names. I said we all loved her.
Two hours later, at dinner, I got my sister’s text: Mom has gone.
Our mother was in her bed, on her back, when we reached the nursing home. Her face was smooth, unlined, still warm.
And suddenly I knew what her eyes were saying when I left for the botanical gardens.
Don’t hurry back. I’m doing this alone. I’m ready.
Note: The story’s title comes from the misremembered words of South African poet and singer Sisipho Makambi. The correct lines, quoted with Makambi’s permission, are:
There is no memory of anyone ever teaching us how to hold fire and water in our mouths, we just open our eyes one day and know how to.
Elsewhere in this untitled isiXhosa poem she asks in English:
When did we learn to burn our insides while simultaneously drowning?
Jo-Ann Bekker is a South African writer and the author of Asleep Awake Asleep (Modjaji Books, 2019). Her fiction has appeared in South African and US literary journals and is included in the anthology Fool’s Gold (Modjaji, 2019). She has an MA in Creative Writing from Rhodes University, where she is a part-time lecturer in the creative writing programme.