The Olympian Ghosts

Books have cogs, wheels (a mix of that). They tasted like berries on her mouth, to her wanderer’s soul. In her dreams her feet must touch land. But tonight all she can see is the river’s unbending wall.

The wuthering heights of the problem with pain, the enduring sameness of illness, and the weight of water against the physical body, cutting a swathe across the shoulder blades. (She was performing secret acts of terrorism in the water, reciting propaganda to beats and electronica, interrogation under the peel of blue that was pulling her under). Ghosts were sinking into the water all around her. They were smiling ghosts. She was still a long way off from recovery, psychological health. There it was.

Who was she? Isn’t that what illness is when you first discover it. It is a secret that can take away years from you life, your movements, what once was so beautiful you just withers away.

I have always felt the roots of grief long before denial and bereavement, loss, sex, the knowledge of having serious relevant sex and to be conservative.

How does a flower express itself? It does not ask itself where is the exit route is. It is never gripped with the grit of a curious infant when it comes to its first word. Choose people who challenge you. There’s no law against waiting for Mister Right. There were connections that are universal; these universal knowledge systems. Maroon champagne, the spice of lilac wine. Oil on her hands. Oil on her hair. Oil on canvas where every brushstroke there is ample room left behind for roots, stems, leaves, flowers, branches, trees to grow like vintage champagne. I am waiting for wisdom, standing in a Zen line of succession. There’s something poetic about that.

The canvas is propped up like the trees. Even though she feels she is too much, much too much in this world, of this world. All women to her are creatures from another planet. All men are tigers, caretakers and their intellect burns and mock her. She’s the one that belongs locked up in a zoo. With wet eyes piece by piece she tried to salvage materials from her past relationships with men. She shelved them as if she was packing away groceries in the cupboards, the right way up, next to the baked beans, Tasty Wheat, 4-in-1 soup mix, lentils, barley and Milo. Before their history ran out of space, room to grow she pulled them apart at the threads of their flesh, bone, and put them back together again creating a patchwork planet; a ladder to her dream man. What was always absent was chemistry.

She remembered the nights when she had taken every whisper as a sign of intimacy and so she had blundered ferociously on. Patiently she resurrected them all from memory and set them in a budding rhythm like the bloodlines of a phoenix rising out of the ashes. She was miles away today. She went for a run and a swim at the beach. Her warm, sunburnt hands sandy; fingernails covered with golden dust. Later that day she transitioned green plants from pots from Woolworths to fertile ground. In this country it does not snow and there are no acts of terrorism, contagion’s, carrion in the street, talk of secret police spies, holocausts and ethnic cleansing only the tears that came from peeling onions layer by layer and then dicing them up to put in a soup.

This evening she found herself staring at a mosaic of rainbow colour on a plate of food; meat that as once a vulnerable and just as innocent as she was when she was a girl. Now it was nothing more than a sacrificed animal prepared with the detailed ritual part. She moved the food around on her plate. She didn’t have many close friends. There were no women friends that she confided in nor did she meet anyone after work for drinks. She was too quiet and shy. ‘I’m getting older.’ She said to the image staring back at her solemnly in the mirror. ‘And not gracefully either.’ She whispered under her breath.

It came to her in subtle, rushed frames. It was a complete mystery to her why she could not behave like other girls her age. Why she could not be a silly and precocious creature with shiny hair instead of serious with her hair that would not behave. ‘I will not follow in my mother’s footsteps. I will not settle. I won’t, I say, not even if you dared me.’ But as the years gradually began to gain on her and the images of the men she had come into contact with in her twenties and early thirties also began to weigh in on her, her rage gave way. There was an immense feeling of sorrow at night in her childhood bedroom as she tossed and turned trying to find a cool spot on the pillow.

‘You could lose some weight. You could exercise more; it will do you the world of good and work wonders for your self-esteem.’ Everyone began to tell her; her mother, her family doctor, her psychiatrist, family friends, siblings and even strangers. Every night she watched the news. It scared her to death and terrified her. Is that what could happen to her, could she be molested, abused by a violent husband, killed, left for dead at the side of the road, stabbed, raped, mutilated, hijacked, be told to undress and be shot execution style. Perhaps she would die young. Why not her? What was the attraction between them? She knew it was there. He was funny and smart; married and committed to that. He said that on the onset but in her heart of hearts she always knew that there was always someone else. What did marriage mean anyway? It did not mean people were necessarily happy with their circumstances, their spoilt, bratty, conceited children and their job. She had a career. She was more than smart; she was educated. Educated enough to know how girls like her ended up in the workplace; as a lover, a fling, a mistress until everything fell apart, tossed aside for the arrival of a newborn, someone younger, prettier; the one with shiny hair who laughed like a hyena.

‘There’s always something that you have to look out for in the future.’ She told herself. When she packed her bags and left Johannesburg and returned home to Port Elizabeth her prospects was poor. She had no money, no degree, no diploma and no references. So she began to follow her mother’s routine who worked all day in the garden dragging bags of compost, rose bushes from the garage to the yard, weeding, growing every herb imaginable; mint, parsley, coriander, watering it, tending it. She began to focus on something that she loved – her gift; her natural talent and they were still there camping out in the closet. The skeletons of those crooked men.

Was it her sadness that they found so appealing? She found she couldn’t escape them even if she tried. They still wanted to make a stone god of her. They made her feel as if she was some kind of dirty thief. She could feel the dryness in her bones that September. The heat that engulfed her as she jogged slowly dissipated. As she swam she bit back the bitterness of the salt of the seawater as it cut the back of her throat in her mouth; as the waves slapped her in the face, caressed her warm body.

She was a different kind of girl. She had always known this. It had never been a strange feeling, instead it had made her feel special, singled out in a way.

Leaving a Johannesburg filled with hot promise, tears, disgrace, tomfoolery; a woman and returning even younger, even more innocent, a little Lolita. Too much Nabokov and reading poems that were a cauldron had become a young woman’s growing pains in life. Was that how they had seen her, every woman and every man? Of course, she had thought about suicide. She thought secretly to herself that it must have crossed every emotional person’s mind in history. Women were wired to be emotional. It was part of their genetic make-up. (This is not meant to be a tragic story although there are elements within it that are tragic.) She was no longer burnt out with stars in her eyes. Working in the la-la land of television could do that to you. Lying on a bed covered with a sheet with your hand entwined with his, your shoulder, neck engraved with cool fingertips; no longer self-conscious of your nakedness and finding a rare and astonishing beauty in it that wasn’t there before now. Where were the pills? Where were they now? In the medicine cabinet, that’s right. She had left them in there out of reach and for safe-keeping from small hands and tiny, pink open and shutting shells of mouths; from children under three years of age. The pills were in bottles with childproof caps on.

Should he take a chance and conduct a wild celestial affair. Johannesburg was a big city. Should she take a lover? She was old enough and she was tired of waiting. Always waiting for the arrival of a boyfriend she would at first be drawn to, his attention and gifts she would at first find flattering but who would probably be infernal to be around with later. A boyfriend who didn’t know very much of the world. Some dumb guy who didn’t know what life experience meant. Who hadn’t read as widely as she did? Who didn’t walk with a swagger or self-confidence? A guy who thought a date was showing up on her doorstep on a Friday night to take a girl to the movies and buy her popcorn and a fizzy drink and so again and again she came back to this wild affair that she was thinking of embarking on. She knew how to protect herself. She was a big girl. It was Sunday. Her mother was calling to her from outside, while she watched religious programmes to pass the time on television.

Her mother was calling on her to check on the meat for their lunch in the oven. Was it brown enough? Shouldn’t she season it? Now where were those pills? She found an inviting comfort of the odd shapes, colours and forms in the circles of tablets in what she had come to regard of as her beloved medicine cabinet. They were bottled and labelled and entrusted to her by her doctor and pharmacist. In the cabinet there was no space for gauze, for plasters, for razorblades, for hand-held mirrors, brushes and combs, tweezers for splinters. She made it into a ceremony taking her pills conscientiously and gulped down with a glass of water. She never felt better, felt so comfortable in her own skin, so balanced and had this feeling of equilibrium. It’s intimate that’s what madness is. The euphoria; people talk about the gifts that come with it, they forget about the shame, the guilt, the slowness that engulfs and overwhelms your every stirring meditation that you commit yourself to. You try to forget the war inside your mind that fizzes up and tastes as sweet as the childhood flavour of condensed milk in your tea.

So she began to write about her experiences as a way of self-learning her way across the barriers and borders, as a way of therapy, as a way of expelling those ghosts, long dead to the wild, to the barren wilderness, to the past. She was no longer filled, killed with panic, yet the longing for company remained. The longing for male companionship was always there. She wrote away for a literary grant, was awarded one for manuscript development and instead focused all her energy on that. All the proof was there; it just needed a personal space to grow like her talent and with it came the fog of depression, the ruse of mental illness; her muse, interrupting all her self-portraits. Her body was no longer made for sex but for the dryness of writing. She was no longer a glorified slender, sensual object of youthful beauty, self-conscious, beguiling, caught off balance and bewildered at the sexual appetite of an older man; foxes in a flock of pinstripe suits saying meekly, ‘Look at me. Look at me.’ So she stripped herself off all of them in poetry.

Birds coast through the air. I stare at the fable unfolding in front of me. All of this is food for thought nurturing those little earthquakes inside of me. The room is dark. I’m one of them. I’m one of those tragic creatures, features transmogrified.

In the interpretations of listening to my speaking voice there are spaces that are burned. The framed rhythm of the heart beating with a rush of booze, that magnificent air rush of alcohol in the bloodstream. One-part saint talks to me, talks to me about love in hieroglyphics, code, ancient dust, that sounds like an evangelist thirsting for a pilgrim.