The blue prophet blazed in the morning heat - perching silently on the fir-tree. Omen. If not omen - omega of death: the starling, stationed on the tree's top.
The rose bushes bloomed a week before, their furled petals darkening at the edges. The rain-gauge stood empty and webbed with tight blades of grass at its foot. Bees hovered above the lawn carpeted with jacaranda flowers. Foxglove and bocconia hung in the warm shade of the eaves - the baskets dripping around the house. Wasps took flight - building nests, while bulbuls swooped down, hawking insects as trees stood in the heat, waiting for the wind to blow. Each warm draft like the pant of a dog.
Tractor sound; hoarse diesel groans building up to the homestead. The drivers coming in for lunch, vehicles parking in shaded slots behind the sheds. Their bulk hauling up dust, the clangour of plough discs coated with red earth - exhaust fumes coughing up towers of thick cloud.
For the few minutes it took the procession to dock, the whole yard became an industrial cacophony of engine noise: the pulling-in, the revs, the shouts of drivers on their way to lunch.
And father slept through it all - his shape curled in bed like an ancient fossil.
The starling keeping vigil.
How harsh the acacia field looked to the east: a lime-green forest of thorns in contrast to the distant harrowed fields. The short needle-leafed trees dominated the landscape, held no shadows -just a cruel hallucinatory effect of water flowing into a distance of dry heat.
Clumps of the hardy trees mottled the view from the window, as I looked out - past the cattle dip where my brother and I stared into the dark foetid water skinned with thick slime and dung. Past the kraal where cattle were held, then herded single file into the treated trough, where splashes of muck were coughed up on both sides: muscle struggling through the dark oil-coloured water - liquid spurting out - the beasts' bellows churning out for miles. Past the fig-tree where we found a goat's body, a makeshift spear in its belly, its nipples shrivelled hard in the dusty heat - mouth open in a yawn, revealing its brown teeth and cracked, dark tongue. There, where we vowed never to go again, where anthills towered like orange castles of blood, where light fled quick when night encroached. That place, that mysterious place that caught my eye and held our fear. The wooden spear strung with white beads, decorated with red and black cloth.
Where wind gave life was a sparkle in a field, a glint of blades turning, and up close - the great sound of metal rolling, chopping up air. And water, the cool sound of clear water, splashing into the reservoir, belts of shimmer dancing up - dreamily lashing white breasts of egrets perched on its edge.
He stood, broad-brimmed hat and khaki shorts, one hand on its metal frame. Four years after the rise of the new flag, the country still warm from war, he stood there - cutting the figure of perfect triumph. In the background, the tall bush stood with hints of bark lost in the thick, where faces could be made out and branches arms with arms - the sky, streaked with banners of cloud.
Sunlight falls behind him, partially shadowing his stance. Trees in the distance, caressed with a light wind, burst with reds, mauve, pinks and fawn. And he stands tall, as though he'd invented this very moment: arm out on the windmill, the blades out of picture turning with the sound of metal cutting through air.
What great sense of wonder they gave us, climbing to the tops near the blades - a view of pleasure mixed with peril, the distance beneath our feet. What gods we were when we found their replicas, how high we stood, what great games for towering colossuses.
For hours we stationed ourselves on our bellies, blowing into windmills on the sand-coloured carpet, watching the metal sails rotate, hypnotised by the silver spin. We were caricatured clouds, full cheeks blowing westward, eastward, northward and south - the vanes performing simple magic from an exhale.
We competed to see who could turn the blades fastest - then shouted into the rotation to hear our voices cut, cut, cut... to fragments of loaded air - words sliced to coded messages, wisps
And in our chants of nonsense I'd wish the world away, but the blades kept spinning, only to slow to a yielding pace that broke to a halt of silence.
Two days he lay silent in his grand cot, diminishing. The towering figure reduced to moments of awkward helplessness. His moist skin darkening like the earth we could not use by the vlei, where a stream dissipated into soft black soil, where bulrushes grew in the swale and dragonflies hovered through the putrid smell.
Near the windmill in the east, the bog was the first place we looked when one of the herd went astray. Its unforgiving centre held the beasts - never letting go, drawing in their bodies with harmless-looking stipes that gripped and took a fatal hold.
And the nights now are for fear, great gasping fields of darkness without stars - whole hours of quicksand for the dying. Trees, souls locked to the earth, twisted with fear. And when the nights have passed, and the mornings come still - we ask the dawn, With what ills?
The bird keeping vigil.
As I turn from the window, to make my way to the door, all motion is slow motion as though the acacia field is moving.
In a car, as a child years ago, I stare out as speed propels a different field back: an orchard of oranges, trees in the thousands - florescent golf balls hurling through green branches, backward. In the field, in the late afternoon, a man labours with the full weight of a basket in his hands; he walks slowly, dissolving like a drawn-out shadow.
Those new days, their effervescence, as we explored our new country through every open road. Father's window rolled down, the car droning through time - slipstreamed and warm, its white bonnet cutting through air like a buoyant plank launching, at an angle, out of water.
A decade and a half on, I see the same old man shuffling through the fruit-field. His walk, redefined, his meaning - another meaning for being there. A man I shall know and never know my whole life as a bird crashes into the windscreen with the diminuendo of my mother's scream.
It crept with the silence of light - then, with the speed of the wind, came rushing through the night with the sound of bones snapping clean and joints popping.
The fire-bell rang, its cold vibration - solid and thick. Its tone, shivering through flesh. Its
sound, filled with urgent waves of steel panic, rung off with every pound of the iron bar.
Men dressed and scrambled into the night with wet sacks, stripping branches off any tree.
Like a distant nightmare it came in a dream. Fire, rising from the horizon, burning on its edge: a crown for that which will raise its fiery head and fill the dreamer with its light.
At the foot of the bed it appeared: translucent, pale and heavy - garnering no fear, summoning me to where we stood out beneath the evening sky: there, it held my hand as the
moon and stars orbited its head.
With a long polished claw it pointed into the night - pointing far beyond reason, intellect and memory. What lay there was uncertain yet all too clear, a colourless mud; it offered to take me there, but on one condition: I shall go forever.
The lemur rolled the moon on its tongue, sucked softly, waiting for my reply. Its breath smelt of aniseed. It said nothing and still pointed far beyond with its arm bridging distance - offering it all; as easy as that, as easy as crossing
& what lies beyond distance, and transgresses through all time.
Outside, tears streamed down my face - voices, and hands on my shoulders ushering me back: But where to? Have I reached there? or still walking back, bloody and wet - my father tucking me into the standby bed. The worn mattress suspending tomorrow indefinitely.
Dancers, curtains of flames - souls burning - flushing forward, pulling back - arms flinging, bodies melting in and bursting out. We stood before the dancers - faces bronze-hot, tractors heaving up - cutting fireguards behind us.
Chuff, smoke, the crackle and whistling of burning, deep in the heartland of the bush. Wet sacks and branches with seared leaves mopping up flames.
A strange dance in the wind - the fire pushing forward, men shuffling back from burning arms, then at their paces - forward, back - when the wind changed.
Dawn finally reclaimed the land as the field smouldered. The sweet smell of ash like powdered sugar beneath our feet. Tufts of grass crumbling with each step we took, our bodies torn by the effort - clothes matted to us with sweat.
All night - the dance.
No mirror apart from the effigy folding and unfolding in the basin. Ash in my palms, dusk-like and dusty. The bathroom, sombre - a distorted face undulating on the water as I stare
clean into its depth.
Into the eye of water, within the chipped discoloured basin, his face peering back at me, his wholesome image staring from beneath the surface.
Carefully I place my hand to the reflection - lightly, so as not to cause a quiver or the slightest stir; so gently the water rises to my fingertips.
I feel his cheek, an unconscious brittle sound of stubble rustling through the air, remembering I kissed him there, upon those deep eddies of dimples whenever we parted for more
than a day.
For two days his coffin lay in the living-room, the room saturated with chants and wails,dirges and local hymns. Hosho spraying rhythm all night, the seeds and dry gourd accompanied by beating drums and the flare of a kudu-horn.
The coffin was lifted at dawn, the hearse waited in the driveway. The procession spooling out of the house like black thread, the needle the coffin. Around the household, through the yard, they carried him: through the orchard, the rose garden - past the swing, past the geyser with its metal door open, the cottage, and finally beneath the fir-tree.
The starling gone. The sky swollen with clouds.
Plastic anoraks were drums as the raindrops thudded down on us. Each child separated by three feet of muddy earth as we dibbled a hole, placed the seed and covered.
Tynwald: a three-acre plot. The clouds had been threatening for days. A heavy, pregnant wind struggled over the field as we laboured days before. Its thick breath smelling of asphalt, wet bricks, dry tea leaves.
When the rain came, it slanted in shards shooting from the heavens; clear bolting comets pummelling our coloured anoraks. I looked to my brother doing the paces: one, two, three: hoe, plant, cover - and though the light was sombre, the raindrops took on the colours of his anorak, forming a rainbow on the arch of his back.
Father, a child's mile ahead, by the boundary of the field, turned to us, angered at our slow pace. With water streaming down his face and into his bearded chin, he shouted, droplets spurting from his lips, 'The last row! Then we'll all go into the house!'
All four sons; we hoed, planted and covered till the end of the field where the road, beyond the boundary, curved to an out-of-sight solitude. And even though he had done another row and told us to go indoors, he kept going with the fuel of the future.
Out in the field where maize would sprout and the sun suck the shoots into the sky - there he laboured in solitude: one, two, three - hoe, plant, cover.
Death led us along its path behind the hearse. The black chariot with curtained glass. Its taillights blinking - two scintillating stars: two stars in the constant mirage to my father's village.
His death lead us through the dust, past barbed-wire fences leading to the euthorbia hedges of rural reservations, through groups of donkeys, cattle and herdsmen, through villages shaded beneath the deep blood-foliage of the mupfuti.
Two stars and I follow. A slow convoy trailing. A strange heavy taste in my mouth, the compass-needle of blood guiding me on, the family gravesite steering the wheels to where earth opens up with the wet breath of death.
On the mantle piece, a verdite frame: a faded photograph depicts a young couple thronged by a motionless crowd - the crowd is singing, dancing beneath the eaves of a but where dust has risen from bare feet and is now suspended in time for ever.
She holds flowers, the bride, dressed in white. The groom is all bravado - standing straight and sturdy like a tree-trunk severed just below its first branch. The best man, much smaller than him, looks to the ground as though he consults the groom's shadow, but in actuality is only whispering a joke.
And much the same as then - he looks down now, though no joke, into the grave - a throng of dancers singing and grieving as my father's coffin is lowered into the shadowed hole. My mother throws a lily to the descending casket, and both fall for ever.
In the distance, the aquamarine glare from its eyes spilt into the night of a winter field. In the cold it stood, transfixed. Dart - begins the chase. Dust rumbling, billows churning in the wake of rusted metal - the car leaking oil, a trail of black slick seeping into earth, blood of the engine dense with the coming-killing knotted into the dust. The wheels - the murderous tread rolling on into the dart and jump - the night game of death. The chase. The hunt.
Song, blood-song - hypnotism by beating drum, the heart thudding - the fog in sheets of vaporous floe inches above the road, hiding, revealing the chase around the bend. Dark blades of grass flanking the roadside, gravel sparkling ahead with the fire in the chaser's eye. Jump, jump jump - swerve, duck - wheel, skid, turn - dust spilling out over the curve. The crush of gravel beneath the wheels. Song, dead on will. Chase. Kill.
Madness condensed to a drop of rage. Full stop of words unsaid. Speed, blank as an empty page. All the world in the nip and dip of a rabbit's tail. Kill it. Kill the noise - kill the mad drum drumming mad to the beat and rhythm of blood. This mechanism blown to chaos, feeding the mind with thought - the needle slid so cleanly beneath the skin
the shorn fields look so beautiful
beneath the moonlight -
a sea of blue earth,
waves of loose sheaves,
sends of silence
from what the combine harvester
shot out in chaff
and left behind;
the shredded leaves and stalks
floating through the wind.
My father is there, he stands with his back to me,
the debris falling like stars through the sky,
his body a part of the hills - blue and distant.
I call out to him from the boundary of the field
where the road echoes. He doesn't hear me.
I want him to stretch out his arms and have the chaff
float all around him. He doesn't hear me.
I want the moon and stars to rest on his palms.
He doesn't hear me; instead he walks to the pickup,
gets in and drives further down, over the slope
into the field of the bog - the red taillights
disappearing out of sight.
Dawn threatens the horizon with stencilled shapes
and the moon begins to dissolve -
its long dream-laced-cloak wavering in the wind.
Stared too long. Stared. Hopelessly gasping for air. The chase still on. Headlights. Eyes taking time to adjust again. The drumming of palms on the steering-wheel. Song, blood-song, the beating drum - the adrenaline - this endless road knowing no route to heaven. The bobbing scut flashing in the headlights. The windshield fogging up. Dart - swerve. The long chase, the short corner rushing up:
As old as I, new beard dripping black from his chin,
dust in his eyes as he waves unperturbed, waving and mouthing,
beside a tree as white and painless as aspirin.
Death took all dignity from him, through its first and final stages. His body curled like a foetus, his eyes rolled back: desperately, infinitely, he gurgled for breath.
The heat drew on me as I wrestled to turn him over in his bed, struggling to churn his weight.
One by one he would take us into his arms, cradle us for a moment, rocking us: then from his god-like strength we were flung like memories into the unsure as we were hurled up then fell and splashed into the pool.
There was a safety and imagined danger in this game; he stood at the edge of the pool like a machine manufacturing joy as we ran into his arms like components into the assembly line - to be flung into absolute completion, again.
Fields blurred past the car's windows, its speed tested to the limit, time and distance tampering with the road. Each bend we took - another stretch was invented, where time stalled beneath the wheels.
The rubber road stretched on, pieces of life sucked out the window to dissipate in the slipstream. What was a seven-minute drive was now a lifetime's journey; the car turning off the highway, tearing through the small town - burning the streets for the clinic.
Nurses on the lawn, knitting, reading magazines, having lunch, dozing in the shade beneath trees. Uniforms white as purity - their poise, a poise of pure ease.
One so easily missed it in the panic; others sat with them - staring emptily at the earth, counting grains in the sand, propped up in the shade, fading on the trunks of the trees.
The car pulled in, doors flying open before the actual stop - a throw of panic in upheld arms - only body-language through loss of words. But no one came. Uniforms white as purity - their poise, a poise of pure ease.
No weight could question my strength - my hands locked over my father's chest, his back on my stomach, his loose head, as we carried him into the clinic.
The air filled with sparkling flight, a whole field gently rising with wings. Rain had fallen and the clouds cleared; the sun sinking - its red heavy light loaded with dreams. November and the first sense of real rain - flying ants taking to the air in fields where a team of tractors once worked from dawn till evening; now - hazel tufts of scattered grass and orange anthills make the landscape.
In the evening light, I stop the pickup and get out to run through the field of wings - my arms out beneath the sky streaked with an aftertaste of blood - wet soil picking up and flicking from my boots. Soon, there will be a full moon, and at first it will be blood red as the sun is now, blunt like the crown of a stillborn.
As I run, three feathered shadows stand with shadows on the open ground - the buzzards' heads nodding, twisting in the flight of the ants. Their feast, a strange, portentous dance. And dusk, dusk claims the shapes, draining them into other shapes fused with black - this field, the same field years back where all seven of us walked, having no choice but to trust the dark. The endless depth of that night - a great vault where cloud cover performed illusions through the sky: pulling the whole world in, making the whole world disappear. And in that darkness was our fear, right down to the scent of mud, our feet drudging through the bog, calls of night-birds, wild dogs and jackals piercing our hearts then withdrawing like pins out of velvet cushions.
We walked, whichever way we thought the homestead was; my father almost primal. The Land Rover stuck in the distance - a presence, a dead emotion curled up in the corner of a dream.
For days it had rained, mud caked our boots and dragged us down. The weight, with each step we took, gathered - drawing on the body with a root of gravity you had to break again and again. I feared stopping and being planted in the mud - white blind roots spreading out from my toes - knees locked, and legs stiffening.
The birds lifted to a dead tree. Monstrous wingspans flapping over new stars and planets. What had I done? All around me still the hypnotic fluttering of the ants. And in the last bits of bruised sky - silhouettes of small birds and bats - I raise my hands and fall protecting my head from a large crude shape.
The sound of the wet grass slashes through my ears as I roll through the sharpness - the field turning and trembling, I fear his gasping will stop, the loud labour of his breath cease and bring in the ultimate silence while all
the ward watches as though it were a picture show starring father and son. Sweat from my face dripping into his, fingers caught to the bone between his teeth.
A cough in the ward here and there, clearings of throats, a word or two exchanged by neighbours in adjoining beds, spectators rolling over on sheets tanned by sweat.
He drowned in his own fluid. Sweat from my face raining into his.
All eyes on us.
The first film my father and I watched together was Steptoe and Son, in an old red-carpeted theatre. The smell of popcorn and pipe tobacco; the great casual upholstered seats that nearly lost me in their depth - the way they flipped up and had my naked knees on my chin; how I stuck my head up struggling to see the screen - and, for the first time heard an audience burst out in the dark, laughing.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
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- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
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- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
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