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“Returning to the old dirt road / Butterflies and Jellyfish” by Abbey Khambule

“Returning to the old dirt road / Butterflies and Jellyfish” by Abbey Khambule

Wet posters peel from granite walls and flail in the gusting wind. Some flee the walls and land at my feet and on endless benches speckled with raindrops. Some have long fluttered to the ground not far away and begin to flake in the evening rain.

Mottled grey moths scatter the concrete floor near black wheelie bins, winded and blinded by the taxi rank light.

My chest fills with anxiety—bubbles with hollow bells of jellyfish. I feel I may not be able to stand from the gravity of the rising bloom. I watch as the next beat-up taxi is wheeled out of the rain and into the quiet bay. 

The queue marshal, a beautiful young man in a red and white harlequin shirt, slides open the taxi door, beckons me with a slight nod of the head to climb aboard. I gladly accept his easy gesture and gently rise from the bench to steady my legs, moving closer towards the door. I climb in and slump into the backseat.

I’m a little relieved to find a bit of warmth and something to rest my back on after being so long seated in the cold. The barrel duffel bag on my lap looks like a pillow that’s laid too many heads. Over the years, my shoulder bones and the gold calluses on my palms have delicately scoured its blended leather strap to a soft strip of Manila hemp. I think about the pair of boots inside and wonder if they befit the occasion awaiting me at home. I imagine someone pointing out the silvery stars oddly sewn onto the soles and heels, counting them out to be the many years I’ve been away, or the many galaxies I may have trudged across.

The driver pees into a puddled pothole in the open bay behind the taxi. The spattering of his urine on the muddy water echoes remarkably through the deserted taxi rank, making it especially clear that no travellers will be coming soon to take the rows of empty seats before me. 

I remind myself to breathe. In deep, and out slowly.

It feels like I’m in a cinema and the picture of my life is nearly started, but there’s not a soul to watch it with. The first time I was here at the rank, I was ten years old, travelling with my mother to meet the blue-eyed boy she looked after in Dunkeld West. On the way from the taxi rank to Dunkeld West, I immersed myself in the newly formed world around me because I didn’t want to disrupt the intimate and somewhat fickle way my mother seemed to be looking at the open road. She became a stranger woman with every kilometre we travelled, quieter, for until that day she was only as ever joyful as in the fewer occasions she visited Grandmother’s house.

For a little while, she and the boy appeared like mother and child due to the simple way they affected in each other a likeness of mirth and empathy.

Over time, like the blue-eyed boy, I grew soft around my mother, became like a child again. So, it came as quite strange and later heart-wrenching, and I couldn’t understand why, when we both returned to the taxi rank and she put me alone in a taxi back to Grandmother. I clutched at the rubber jellyfish soaking under falling tears as the overloaded taxi took off that day, wondered why, when she had truly become my mother, she would want to send me away.

The rain and the wind have stopped. The old dirt road I travelled when I was a boy is the colour of the moon as the empty taxi’s headlights beam over it and along a belt of fever trees and dry farmlands. I breathe in deep and breathe out, but I’m quickly worn down again by the ocean of anxiety. I start to imagine the road on both ends rising from the earth, reaching out with its fever tree limps to trap and bury me and the taxi before I reach the house.

On the day I was returned to Grandmother, the driver dropped me off, as instructed by my mother, at the old primary school, the old lonesome church of Saint Lutheran, whose simple doors and pews I would scribble with verses of juvenile rap and song. I sat on a boulder by the side of the road and stared up at the church’s bell tower for what seemed like eternity as it appeared to probe the metallic sky above me. 

It was then that I started daydreaming about a life in the stars. More particularly, about life aboard the USS Enterprise from the Star Trek films I would watch at a friend’s house on bootlegged VHS tapes. I was Captain James Kirk, and the starship crew was men and women all bearing heads shaped like box jellyfish. We travelled far across galaxies searching for my father, who Grandmother bemoaned as my mother’s most significant failure, and whose whereabouts could be traced to the deep kimberlite mines of planet Vulcan. In this version of the world, and upon finding the planet, I decide to stay behind; to live amongst the Vulcans, and in so doing, spend my entire life working in the mines in the hope of finding my unknown father.

A candle is lit by the head of the coffin, furnishing little light to the rest of the bedroom where Grandmother now lay, and where everything else around seems strange in the dark, unfamiliar, except for the old maple chair moved away and into a corner.

I’m staring down at her cold face lying there in white knockoff taffeta and oak-coloured wood, and all I can think about is the rubber jellyfish the blue-eyed boy gave to me as a parting gift. 

I walk out of the darkness of the bedroom and into the light in the living room and head for the main door, returning quietly to the darkness of the night.

There’s a pepper tree outside that leans over a large stone and drops its pungent leaves in the neighbor’s yard, in the home of a girl I fancied. In the months I was gone, and in my mother’s care, Grandmother acquired a red spaniel for herself, which she rightly named Ruby. Ruby was a gundog, madly fascinated by the tree and the mannikins that made a home there, and most fond was she of the rubber jellyfish, for she carried it with her everywhere she went, until one piece at a time all its arms fell off. 

Abbey Khambule lives in Johannesburg. Loves words, visual art and good food. His previous work has appeared in Aerodrome, Botsotso, Brittle Paper, DRUM, Dye Hard Press, Kalahari Review, New Coin, and New Contrast.

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