Where men take blood in the world in hunting and in war, women give blood.
The Small Backs of Children
It was Bea who gifted me the smell of blood. I bore it through the decades, involuntarily. Even now, with Bea dead these twenty years and my sense of smell gone, I remember that odour. It is solid as an object, a thing of weight and colour and texture. A pigeonblood ruby, rough and uncut. The older I get, the more I look at it. I spend days studying its detail: the hue, the feel, the shape, the mass of it. I find myself back in Groot Marico with Bea all those years ago.
We were eleven at the time. Bea found blood in her panties and showed it to me. It reminded me of a fleshy stapelia flower, wet-red with ripe, a bloodflower fallen from her bloodtree. The smell moved me. It was as if, even then, I felt its potency, sensed the ascendancy of blood over her future. And yet, I could not have imagined then what I know now. I could not have imagined how human lives would bloom in Bea. How her inside-tree would put forth tiny pink bodies like blossoms: beating hearts, brains sheathed in bone, mouths that would one day speak and laugh and eat. Nor could I have foreseen how Bea would give herself over to roles as antique as the soil we stand on. Mother, wife, housekeeper. How she would dedicate herself to the body, to its needs and excretions, to those bodily functions that give life and support its continuance. How bodily excreta would become familiar to her. Semen, milk, faeces, vomit, sweat, saliva. Blood. How blood would become for Bea both giver and inheritor of life. Creator and devastator.
Losing my sense of smell was a hard irony to take, but I accepted it as I accepted my other sensory losses. It is the price one pays for living in an old, ruined body. Still, I can’t get used to a deodorised world. Air is colourless, without texture or tone, as if someone has emptied it out or wiped it clean. I lost my sense of taste along with my smell. Now my tongue is only capable of five sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savoury. That is all. I can’t say if something tastes like shit or sugar, I can only say, This is salty, or, This is sweet. The doctor diagnosed it as nasal polyps, little nasal growths that sever me from smell and taste, and suggested I get them removed. I told him not to bother. I told him I’m almost done with this body.
It was blood that killed Bea in the end. Margaret told me the story. I often find myself going over that specific detail of her narrative, how Bea was poisoned by her own blood. How blood took her life, just as, in the beginning, it bore her life. Through death, her body vanished completely. I was left behind, questioning thin air.
One year, I invited Bea to Groot Marico. My mother had inherited a cottage in the area, and we would often drive out there for long weekends and holidays, to get away from our cramped flat in Johannesburg. Margaret, Bea’s other friend, had planned to invite her to the Magaliesberg mountains, and I was elated to have been the first to ask Bea and secure her yes.
Margaret was tall and thin, loud and clingy. I tolerated her out of devotion for Bea. The three of us went everywhere together, but there was a continual tug of war between Margaret and I—for Bea’s affection, for her laughter, for the yeses she gave out like sweets. Perhaps Bea was oblivious to this silent struggle. Perhaps she chose to ignore it.
We left on a Thursday afternoon and arrived in Groot Marico at dusk. As we unpacked the car, darkness fell sudden and complete over the house. It was July, midwinter. Our cottage had no insulation or heating, and the cold seeped into everything. My mother made us tomato sandwiches for supper, prepared us each a hot water bottle, and sent us to bed. We lay in the pink light of my crystal lamp, watching the shadows in one another’s faces, and whispered our plans for the next day. To explore the forest. To find the river. To build mudhouses on the bank. Curling around the warmth of our hot water bottles, we slept.
The next morning I found Bea in the bathroom, doubled over on the toilet. When I came in, she sat up and looked at me. Her eyes wide-open.
My period, she breathed.
Months before, Bea had come into puberty. I had watched her body shed its angles, softening and swelling and opening. It pushed out breasts and hips, padded her bones in new layers of flesh, trimmed her legs with soft brown hair. Margaret and I celebrated Bea’s pubescent body as if she were the author of it. We counted the hairs in her armpits and asked to touch her breasts. We wanted to know how it felt. Was it nice having boobs sticking out like that? Did the hairs on her fanny tickle? How did it feel having blood come out of her? Perhaps it was then, during Bea’s pubescence, that I fell in love with women and women’s bodies.
I had not moved from the bathroom doorway. Though I was familiar with Bea’s body, something held me back. She had spoken of her period before but never shown me her blood. I thought of it as sacred, out of bounds.
Ag Bea, I said. Is it really bad?
Not that bad, she said. Her voice was breathy, as if a wind were blowing through it. Not as bad as earlier.
You want me to speak to my mom? Maybe she has something that’ll help.
Bea nodded. Then her eyes opened, as if in surprise, and she leaned forward again. I stepped out, closing the door behind me.
My memory of that morning is vivid. Its details are clearer than today’s breakfast, more exact than yesterday’s afternoon walk. I no longer have family or lovers to distract me from remembering. I enter my childself, the girl of more than sixty years ago, enter her prepubescent body as she makes her way back to the bathroom that day in Groot Marico. I smell the sharp chilly air. I see the red and black Ajrak print of my mother’s scarf and feel the heat of the hot water bottle through the fabric. I feel the cold bite of metal as I grasp the handle, push open the bathroom door.
I closed the door behind me and crossed the tiled white floor. Bea was still sitting crouched on the toilet seat, holding herself.
Bea, I said, kneeling beside her. My mom made you a hot water bottle. She says heat helps. You’re supposed to use the scarf to tie it here, over your uterus.
She sat up and stared at me. Her eyes big, shiny.
Huh, she said. That was a bad one.
I handed her the hot water bottle. She pressed it to her belly and closed her eyes. That’s nice, she whispered. While I waited for Bea to return from her reverie, I saw the soiled pad between her legs. It was then that I conceived of the dark glutinous substance as a flower, blooming once a month inside her. She opened her eyes and saw me looking.
Here, she said. Smell.
I moved closer. Squatting beside the toilet, I inhaled. Her blood was brown and sticky, very rich smelling. Until then, I had only known Bea as an outside-smell. Skin and soap and dust. Her inside-smell, the smell of her blood, was different. It had an underground odour, moist and dark, wet loam crushed between the fingers. It was potent, vast and deep. Something of the animal and the earth. It tightened in my belly, turned.
I like it, I said. I like the smell.
She laughed. The sound echoed, breaking against the cool white surfaces. Never before had I felt such feeling for another human being. I got onto my knees and embraced her. We held each other for a long time. When at last Bea spoke, her breath was hot against my neck.
Just going to wee quickly, she said.
I released her. Her smell filled the bathroom and again I inhaled. If this is the smell of blood, I thought, then I too want to bleed.
That was the power of her inside-smell.
I have seen what menstruation can do to a woman. It can tear her in two like a piece of paper. It can make her shout and put unspeakable words in her mouth. It can talk over her, turn her into a stranger for a while. When my period finally came, it was mild, almost unnoticeable. I was lucky. I was not affected by cramps or mood swings as some women are, and so it was only much later, after I had asked my lovers to describe the feeling, that I began to understand the pain Bea must have been in that weekend. At the time, I believed she could shake it off. I convinced myself that, if she would only put her mind to it, she could throw off the pain like a heavy coat and play with me.
After we had dressed and eaten breakfast, we went onto the stoep. Everything was washed clean by the nightcold. A fine tissue of mist hung above the trees, and the grass, sheathed in frost, glittered quartzlike in the sunlight. The air smelled of coffee and woodsmoke. I stamped my feet and clapped my hands for warmth. Bea stood motionless beside me. She had tied the hot water bottle to her middle and was cradling the bulge as if it were a pregnant stomach. My breath blurred white when I spoke.
Man alive! Cold hey?
She nodded and smiled. But there was a line between her eyes, as if she were concentrating.
Beyond the grass was a field scattered with stones and hard clods of red earth. Three raised vegetable beds, boarded with planks and filled with dry soil, stood in a row to our right. The forest began at the far side of the field.
Let’s go, I said, starting down the stoep steps.
Bea followed. She walked gingerly, as if there were shards of glass in her shoes, while I swung my feet high and brought them down hard. Blades of grass broke under my boots. When we came to the field, I opened my arms to the sky and laughed. Bea bowed. I turned, dropping my arms.
Bea? You okay?
She held herself, sucking air. I glanced at the trees ahead and then looked at her again. She hugged the hot water bottle to her belly. I reached and touched her.
Bea, I said, you want to sit? We can sit here for a bit if you want.
She straightened. The skin under her eyes was dark, bruised.
Ja, she said. I’ll be fine just now.
We sat on the nearest vegetable bed. She leaned and gripped the wooden edge, breathing carefully. I waited. I thought of the world inside her, dark with soil and seed and sap, and imagined how heavy it must be. After a time, I turned to her.
You ready yet?
She looked at me sideways. There was an absence in her eyes, as if her gaze were turned inward, towards the miracle at her body’s core.
Almost, she said. You can go. I’ll catch up just now.
What you mean?
I’m just going to lie down for a bit. You go and I’ll come find you now-now.
I stared at her. For the first time, Bea was telling me no. I did not want to believe it. I pushed off the vegetable bed and faced her.
Come on Bea, let’s go. You’ll feel better in the forest.
I’m going to rest a bit first, she said.
She lay back. She put one arm over her eyes and held the hot water bottle to her belly with her hand. I looked at her prone figure, so far beyond my reach. Her pain was a house and she had locked herself inside it. I wanted to break the door down. Instead, I turned and strode towards the forest. A black twist of fury lay on my tongue, sharp and salty as liquorice.
In the liquid shade of the trees, I slowed. Swathes of old man’s beard hung from the branches, and the path, quilted with rotten sticks and leaves, gave spongelike under my footsteps. The air smelled raw and clean. Now and then the brittle strain of running water broke through the quiet like a hymn.
I came to the stream and squatted on the bank and waited. I listened to the water threading coldly through the rocks and watched shards of sunlight catch against its corrugated surface. I had planned to play with Bea here. For weeks I had imagined the two of us making miniature mud houses in which to play our games. Mother-mother. Shop-shop. Baby-baby. Universal double-barrelled games, played for generations. I thought of how Bea had stripped the pad from her panties that morning. How she had rolled it up and wrapped it in toilet paper and asked me to hold the cocoon of blood. How proud I was to be given that task. How she had peeled the fresh pad from its purple jacket and pressed it, sticky-side down, into her panties. Finally, she had pulled up her tights and taken the blood-cocoon from me. I put the used ones in a plastic bag, she had said.
For a long time I sat waiting for Bea. Leaves shivered in the canopy above and pebbles knocked in the riverbed. I listened for her, for the song of my name in her mouth or the careful tread of her footsteps, but she did not come. At last, I gave up. I followed the path back through the forest and out onto the sunlit field.
Bea had not moved. I see my childself watching her and wonder how I would have felt if I had known then what I know now. What would I have done if I had known, for instance, that the position in which she lay—flat on her back, arm over her eyes, hand on her stomach, feet on the ground—would become a motif, a repetition? Bea lying on a park bench, six months pregnant, on the verge of disappearing from my life. Bea slumped on a bed in a recurring dream. Bea resting on a couch, her head on Margaret’s lap, exhausted by motherhood and wifehood and sex. Bea dead on her single bed at home, poisoned by her sugared blood. Why is it that certain moments—instances of duplication and coincidence—return to bother us in our last years? Now, when I think of Bea in Groot Marico, the memory is infused by birth and death, desire and pain, coming and going.
But on the day I stood watching her sleep on the vegetable bed, she was as yet untouched by her future. I called her name. When she did not answer I started towards her, kicking stones as I went. She woke. Lifting her arm from her eyes, she turned her head and watched me approach. Her skin was pink, glowing from the sun. She smiled.
I’m going inside, I said. I did not smile.
I’ll come with, she said.
She stood up. Her movements were slow and stupid, as if she had forgotten how her body worked, and I looked away. We went towards the house in silence, our eyes set straight ahead.
Bea was sick for the rest of the weekend. She spent most of the time in bed, though sometimes she came outside with me and, as on the first day, lay on the vegetable bed. Then I would sit beside her and stroke the hair at her temples, talking about the games we would play once she was better. When the cramps closed over her, she went inside again. I’m just going to lie down, she would say, as if in apology. Her smile a bruised fruit.
She changed her pad twice a day, before breakfast and after supper. I always attended this ritual. She didn’t seem to mind, though she did not again offer the smell of her blood. I would squat beside her, holding the clean pad, and watch her rip the soiled cotton wad from her panties, rolling and wrapping it in toilet paper. During these times I longed to bleed also, believing in blood as the instrument that would take me to her. Years later, when my own period started, I knelt with joy. I bowed to the black stain and inhaled.
The weekend passed slowly. I went for walks and built mudhouses down by the stream, but it wasn’t the same without Bea. I came home dissatisfied and irritable. One afternoon, I stripped naked in front of the bathroom mirror and examined myself. I looked at my small pale body, skinny and hard and narrow, and pictured the tree at its core. A sapling: unripe, green, scentless. I did not mind. I knew the blood and breasts and hair and hips were all there, inside me. Closed buds, quiet-waiting. By the time I put on my clothes, my skin was numb with cold. A faint metallic smell pinked the air.
We left Groot Marico on Monday afternoon. On the drive back home, I saw a change in Bea. She had her old smile back, the one that pleated the corners of her eyes.
I think I’m getting better, she said.
Bea, vanguard of blood and breasts and armpit hair, became the first in the class to fall pregnant. She was sixteen years old. After dropping out of school, she began meeting Margaret and I at the park down the road. We would walk over there in the afternoons, after our classes had finished, and find Bea waiting for us under the eugenia trees.
For months we followed this routine. Chatting, laughing, planning. We ate the dark red berries hanging in clusters from the trees and watched Bea grow plump, awed by all the flesh of her. She would sit cross-legged on the grass and listen to us, her big body draped in gauze dresses, her hands caressing her bloated stomach. With questions, we vied for her attention. We wanted to know what it was like having a human being inside her. Had it kicked yet? Did she have cravings? Could she feel its heartbeat under her own? She smiled at our questions and seldom answered. The father of her child remained unspoken of, unnamed. Bea never mentioned him, and I, in turn, did not ask who he was. I knew he existed, but he seemed incidental, irrelevant. To me, Bea’s pregnancy was, like her pubescence, a miracle of her own making.
I remember one day in particular. It was one of our last afternoons together, though I did not know that then. Bea was quieter, more distant, than usual, as if she were holding back. As if she had come upon a discovery outside language and could not put it in words. Margaret and I were sitting on the ground, eating blades of grass. Bea, perhaps because of the size of her belly, lay on a park bench close by, her legs bent at the knees and her feet flat on the ground. She was rubbing circles into her belly with the palm of her hand, her face turned upward. Her eyes open, tranquil.
I glanced at Margaret. She was gathering herself to speak, her eyes locked on Bea. As I moved to silence her, she spoke.
Who is he?
I sat back. Bea’s hand slowed. As it came to a rest on top of her stomach, she closed her eyes. Her body went still.
I felt as if I were back in Groot Marico. Once again I was watching Bea’s inert figure on the vegetable bed. Then she had been blossoming, now she was fruiting. A human body had formed inside her and I wanted to be there when it came. I wanted to be the first to bend over its pale crumpled skin and inhale the scent of Bea’s entrails. But Margaret made it clear I would be excluded. In the same way she was, at that moment, barred from the answer to her question, I would be barred from the birth.
A few days later, Bea stopped coming to the park. Margaret tried to contact her, but no one answered her calls or messages. When at last I went to Bea’s house, her mother came to the door and told me she wanted to be left alone. This idea had not occurred to us. It struck a deep and terrible blow, and we gave up trying to see her. Soon afterwards, we heard that she had given birth to a girl and moved to Cape Town with a boyfriend.
Without Bea, Margaret and I drifted apart. I watched her make a spectacle of her hurt. She carried it around like an expensive trinket, showing it to anyone who would look. I kept mine under the skin. I showed it to no one, but it was wide and dark as a river.
Children have a fascination for bodily excreta. Urine, faeces, blood, sweat. They pull open the clefts of one another’s bodies to see how things work. They pry and poke. They sniff. They taste. Only later does curiosity become disgust. How does it happen, this metamorphosis of perspective? And why did this revulsion not develop in me? In my case, curiosity became reverence. The stained sheets, the used pads and tampons, the blood poured from mooncups and pooling at the bottom of the toilet bowl—I treated these lapses in concealment, these displays of an inside-world, as gifts, as accidental presents bestowed upon me by the women I loved.
In the years following Bea’s disappearance, I often thought of her. It was always blood, the sight of it or the smell of it, that brought her back to me. Once, I was in a car accident and cut my arm from wrist to elbow. As the blood ran into my lap, I inhaled the earth-iron scent and thought of Bea. I wondered where she was and what she was doing and how many children she had. That was how the association worked. If there was blood, then there was Bea. A cut finger, a bloody nose, my period, a pad in a public toilet, a menstruating woman—any of these was enough to bring back the memory of Bea.
Then there were the dreams. I had hundreds of dreams about Bea over the years, but two stand out to me now. Both were recurring.
In one of these dreams, I am standing in the room in Groot Marico. Bea is lying on the bed, her legs off the end and her feet on the ground. She is pinned to the bed like an insect. Her arm rests over her eyes and her hand supports her monstrous belly. Children roam about the room, whispering and coughing. They hang from the windows, squat on the bedside table, crawl over the floor. Mounting the bed, they bend over Bea. They pant in her ear and tickle her nostrils with their hair. When she does not respond, they grow angry. A child reaches under her dress and pulls. Hot red fluid pours out between Bea’s legs, filling the room. Her stomach deflates. By the time I get to her, she is an empty hot water bottle, slack and flat.
In the other dream, I am kneeling in a forest. The air is damp, cold. Someone kneels beside me. Her face is obscured, but I know it is Bea. I know by her presence: calm, sure, self-contained. We remain like this a long time, kneeling together. Then Bea plunges her arm into the ground and brings up a fistful of red earth. Without turning to me, she offers her hand. Smell, she says. Smell the blood.
Surfacing from these dreams, I would wake the woman sleeping beside me. There were always women in those days, a new one every few months. Can you smell it? I would ask. None of them ever could. But I would lie in the dark, sniffing the pinked air, knowing that Bea had come and gone.
I was in my thirties when Bea re-entered my life. At that point, I was working as a lecturer at Rhodes University. My mother had died several years before, and after her death I had sold the cottage in Groot Marico and moved to Grahamstown.
It was a Friday afternoon and my classes were done for the day. I was sitting at the computer in my office, checking Facebook. The social media platform had only just taken hold in South Africa and I had set up an account a week or two earlier. While I was scrolling through my news feed, a friend request came through. The name took the air out of my lungs.
Beatrice Cawood. Bea.
I sat forward and clicked on her profile. She was unrecognisable. Her cheeks shone with fat, flesh hung from her upper arms. Her eyes, once large and thoughtful, were pushed back into the dough of her face. A man appeared in a few of the photos. He was middle-aged, exhausted. His clean-shaven jowls dragged from his face and sacs of skin showed under his eyes. I looked at him and wondered if he, too, had smelled her blood. Then there were Bea’s children, three pubescent girls. I studied each of them in turn, but it was the eldest who held my attention. She looked nothing like Bea. Her mouth was thin, her pale eyes narrowed to slits. She had come to life inside Bea, catching alight like a flame, yet I did not recognise her. I did not know her.
Bea’s online profile had the look of a children’s storybook. Her Facebook wall was filled with happy-family photos, inspirational quotes, articles on motherhood, animal memes, recipes, written devotions. Family is everything, she wrote in one status. So grateful for my three beautiful daughters and my wonderful husband. So blessed. The virtual world she had constructed for herself reminded me of the double-barreled games we used to play as children. Mommy-mommy. Baby-baby. House-house. Games comprising daddy, mommy, baby, house, car, dog. In that order.
By the time I logged off, night had fallen. I sat in my chair, watching shadows deepen against the walls. If I have ever grieved for Bea, it was then. From the moment she offered me the smell of her blood, I had expected something of her. Something unusual, even cataclysmic. Yet here she was, an ordinary woman pursuing the happily-ever-after. A woman who, without irony or self-consciousness, spent her free time announcing to a small audience of virtual friends that she was blessed.
I stayed the night in the English department. At the time I was between lovers and had no reason to drive home. I lay on the floor of my office and slept.
In all the years that Bea and I were Facebook friends, we never once exchanged a private message. Nevertheless, I became absorbed by the life she curated for herself online. At first I checked her profile once or twice a week, but as the months passed I began checking it daily, sometimes several times a day. I told no one about this new passion of mine. It was like one of those sinister thoughts that flash through our mind unbidden—thoughts that, if we were to word them, would make us repulsive, inhuman. Bea’s day-to-day life became news I needed to keep track of, as if I had missed something the first time I looked through her profile. Or as if I were seeking in this woman the other Bea, the girl I had known as a child.
In this way, I tracked her progress through the world. I witnessed her joys and disappointments, her hungers and fears. I noted her husband’s promotions at work and the rose he left on the kitchen counter for her birthday. I studied photos. Photos of holidays in the Karoo, family braais next to swimming pools, trips to Kirstenbosch, Clifton beach, the Waterfront. Photos of breakfasts, lunches, dinners. I read her opinions about diets, raising children, the heterosexual family unit. I monitored her increasing weight. I watched her daughters become adults, matriculate, leave home.
I observed Bea’s life on Facebook for fifteen years. I followed every post she uploaded and disseminated online until the day I saw the RIP messages flooding her wall, and even then I wasn’t satisfied, even then I wanted more. I wanted to know how she had died. I spent hours on Facebook, searching posts and comments, looking for clues. I found nothing. In the end, I trawled her friends’ profiles. I entered the lives of others, studied the photos and opinions of people I had never met, never would meet. Here they were, offering themselves to the public. Laughing, graduating, marrying, reproducing, working, sleeping, eating—all online. Impossible, I thought. Ridiculous.
It was in this way that I came across Margaret’s Facebook profile. Though I had not seen her since high school, I recognised her at once. She had the same long face, the same thin body. We were on the phone within an hour. Her voice was strong and clear, but she spoke as if she were on the edge of things. As if another step would topple her.
I also found out on Facebook, she said. You have no idea how hard that was for me. We’d been together for six years and I had to find out about her death in a fucking Facebook post. I was on a business trip and couldn’t even drive over to her place. In the end I just thought bugger it and phoned her husband. He’s never liked me, but that night he sounded glad to hear my voice. He talked and talked. Said he’d found Bea on her back in the bed, arm across her face. Apparently the bed was made and she was wearing the same clothes from the day before, so she must’ve passed away in the night. He only found her the following evening. Would you believe that? A whole night and a day before he noticed. They slept in separate rooms, but still. By the time the ambulance got there, she had been dead for close to twenty-four hours.
Margaret paused. I waited. Together we circled the unbelievable shape of Bea’s absence in the world.
You know what I keep wondering, she said at last. I keep wondering what I was doing at the time. Was I eating? Or peeing? Or sleeping? It seems so fucking ridiculous that I could have been doing something like that the moment she died.
Again she fell silent.
I’m sorry, Margaret, I said. I’m so sorry. I paused. Do you know—do you know what happened?
Diabetes, she said. She was diagnosed in her mid-thirties, I think. That was before I came on the scene. But her sickness, like our relationship, was all undercover. Only her family and I knew. When that man, that husband of hers, began going off with women, Bea started eating. Food became the one thing she could depend on, the only constant. And what was worse—she went for the sugary crap. Chocolate and toffees and cake and marshmallows. Those were her favourites. She was drowning in sugar, and the bigger she got, the more careless she became with her injections. Maybe—I don’t know. Maybe I got there too late.
I listened to the static on the line and wondered whether I should tell Margaret my own story. How Bea had gifted me the smell of blood and what it was like, that smell. But when I spoke, those words would not come.
I knew she was having difficulties, I said. I knew she was struggling with her weight, but from what I saw on Facebook—
Margaret laughed. A hot sharp sound, like a slap.
What Bea put on Facebook was bullshit, she said. But it comforted her. She could control Facebook in a way she couldn’t control her life. She would spend hours online, sometimes even while I was there. Posting articles she hadn’t read. Writing statuses she didn’t believe. Uploading photos of a happy family that didn’t exist. I spoke to her about it once and she just stood and smiled. Didn’t even answer me.
Do you remember, Margaret went on, how Bea just disappeared that time? That was because of him—that man, her husband. He found out she was visiting us at the park and stopped her from coming. Said it was too dangerous for her to be walking around like that. And Bea just went with it. She went with everything he said. That’s why she didn’t even say goodbye to us.
I remembered Margaret’s grief after Bea stopped coming to the park. It had disgusted me at the time, but now I envied it. To be able to speak one’s despair. To be able to load hurt into language and give it over to someone else for a while, even if it did not always fit snug inside words.
And you know what, Margaret said, that’s how Bea spent her entire life. She gave in to whatever her husband said. I once convinced her to get a divorce, but he told her no and she went with it.
I cleared my throat. And her daughters, Margaret? What happened to them?
I’m not sure, she said, her voice tightening. The last I heard, they were off gallivanting around the world. She paused. You know, she said, I never liked those girls. They gave Bea one hell of a time from beginning to end, as if she’d done them an injury by bringing them into the world. Ungrateful, malicious—all three of them. I thought she’d be relieved when they left home, but it made it worse. Her husband was always going away on these so-called business trips, so she was alone a lot of the time. She had no idea what to do with herself in that empty house. It was around then that we got involved. I’ve spent years keeping it secret. Now I have to keep my grief a secret as well, and you know what? Part of me just wants to go bugger it and speak about what we had, because, unlike the thing with her husband, it was beautiful. It was good.
Our conversation ended in a polite exchange of pleasantries. Lovely surprise to hear from you. Must do a visit soon. Keep in touch. I never saw or spoke to Margaret again. I found out about her death as I had found out about Bea’s, via Facebook. That same day, I noticed the number of dead people on my friend list and deleted Facebook. It is surely a graveyard by now.
How life passes away before our eyes. Bea has been dead for more than twenty years now, and soon I, too, will be gone. My body is being dismantled. I feel it. I feel it in the loss of those faculties that once gave me pleasure. Such as smelling. Such as seeing and hearing and tasting. Such as dreaming and bleeding. These animal capacities are the buffer between myself and the world. Without them, I cannot last long.
I have lived contiguous with death for years. For what is death if not absence? Absence of smell, taste, sight, dreams, blood. Absence of body. Absence of all that which Bea prized most in the world. The tree inside me—the bloodtree that flowered but never fruited—is quite dormant now. When I imagine my womb, I see a dead wooden shaft, naked of bark, leaf, flower, fruit. The colour of sand. Dry.
Sleep is blank and vacant, dreamless. At night, and sometimes during the day as well now, I enter a kind of temporary death in which all things are absent. In which absence itself is absent. I wake up cold and numb. My greatest fear is that one day I will wake up dead. The terror is not in the idea of a corpse, nor even in the fact that I am dead, but rather in the awareness of being locked inside a lifeless body. All sensation stuffed out. The heart still, the blood silent.
I fill time with thought. There is the moment in the bathroom with Bea, for instance. Why did her menstrual blood attract me with such potency? Was it that, having been born in blood only eleven years before, I was reminded of the womb, my original bloodhome? Was I yearning towards it as one yearns towards a former dwelling place? For what is the womb if not our first home: the tree on which our hearts form, seeking a pulse. And did my passion for bodies, for women’s bodies and the body-life, come from Bea, from the smell of Bea’s blood, from the scent that I took from her like a gemstone?
During the years I followed Bea on Facebook, I thought of her with contempt. I believed she had wasted her life. And yet who was to say my life was better than hers? Why should a life preferencing the mind be superior to a life preferencing the body? I often wondered if she had regrets. Did she regret the early pregnancy, dropping out of school, her marriage, staying home to cook and clean, raising three children? Amid all the blood and milk and semen, did she long for books, discussions, philosophical thought? Or did the body-life satisfy her? Was her discontent located elsewhere, in suppressed sexuality, in the malice of daughters, in the adultery of a husband?
Speculating is futile, but it helps me pass the time. I allow myself this indulgence. I am, after all, on the final threshold. I am about to disembark from this life.
My life has folded into a single image. In it, I am standing on a shoreline as soft and bloody as meat, watching the ocean. A black wave recedes, pulling back back back. I bend, dip my forefinger into a dark knot of jelly near my feet, touch the taste to my tongue. Sweet. Sugar sweet, perhaps. Bea stands far out, beyond the breakers. She plunges her hand into the blackness and brings up a liquid flower of blood. Here, she cries, smell. Her voice is loud, distinct. I lean towards her, towards the blooming petals of red, and inhale. But there is no smell. This world, like the other, is absent of scent.
Kharys Ateh Laue is a South African writer whose work has appeared in Down River Road, Grey Sparrow, Cleaver Magazine, Jalada, Brittle Paper, New Contrast and other literary journals. In 2017, her short story “Plums” was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. Her academic work, which focuses on the depiction of race, gender, and animals in South African fiction, has been published in English Studies in Africa, Scrutiny2, and the Journal of Literary Studies. She currently lives in Port Elizabeth.
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