Darkness has settled like a contented cat, purring with the help of a thousand open-mouthed husbands. The urban world slumbers as people dream their way forward into tomorrow. In the bedroom, while she sits in the rocking chair bought to feed the newborn, her husband sleeps, a gentle snore escaping as it does some nights and not others. In the cot beside the bed little Thomas sleeps also, his arms flung free from the blankets, his little mouth pursed in a tiny ‘o’. He has his father’s mouth.
It is night. Again. She sits in the rocking chair at the foot of the cot and stares out the window. Because it is night, she sees her reflection in the glass mingled with snatches of the outside. The juxtaposition unsettles her mind, casts it free so that it wanders.
The glass reminds her how frail everything is. How easily things can shatter and never be redeemed. No matter how many King’s horses or King’s men. She reaches out and touches the cold glass, imagines wet dew upon a vast open land where beasts mingle in a display of magnificence. Above the beasts a wide stretch of blue sky and a hot, yellow sun. Birds float across the blue as if seeking rain to ease their thirst. She has been slipping back of late. Time travelling is how she describes it to friends and relatives who looked at her for a moment too long before shaking their heads and ‘tut tutting’.
‘I’m travelling back in time,’ she explains one afternoon over tea shared with Marianne, her neighbour.
‘What do you mean?’ asks Marianne while thinking about a few square metres of dirt in her backyard not yet converted to garden.
She sees the glazed look in her neighbour’s eyes and understands. New Mothers are expected to ramble on. Everyone lets them but few actually listen. Its like adults with children, nodding their heads, muttering their ‘uh huh’s’ but revealing too much in the way their eyes leave the child and watch things happening behind their little, eager heads.
She continues on anyway, it is nice to hear her voice after the silence of the night. Nice to know sound still exists: That her language is English and not some African dialect lost some thousand or so years before a ragged Christ wandered out of the desert to convert the world to a new sensibility.
‘Sometimes I step out of the shower and shock myself when I see that my skin is white, my hair blonde and straight.’
Her neighbour half-listens but understands little. She hasn’t had her two children yet ‘putting it off until the finances are in order and the mortgage is reduced to a sustainable level’ but thinks she will probably rant a bit after the birth of her first. Certainly all my friends have, about all sorts of things.
‘Africa is haunting me,’ she explains at the breakfast table one morning to her husband.
‘What do you mean?’ he asks casually, more concerned with the sports page than her words.
She knows he is not really interested. It’s not his fault. Their lack of physical contact since Tom’s birth has opened a small chasm between them. Besides, he has a finite length of time before he must dash off to work. He likes to read the sports pages before leaving in the morning. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t his attention. That really isn’t the point. She needs to say things out loud for her own sake. His input is coincidental.
‘I feel Africa in my bones. I hear it in the sounds Tom makes. Maybe I’m going mad.’
‘You,’ he says with a snort. ‘You’re the sanest person I know.’ He says. He stares across the table at her, measuring her, noticing the glow to her cheeks, the way her green eyes shine with life, feels his heart give a little kick then his eyes return to the paper and he reads about his beloved Tigers.
If only you knew, she thinks but doesn’t say anything. How can I explain this irrational fear? This sense of impending doom and yet this joy also, this delight every time I have to pick Tom up? And with the thought her nipples tingle and she feels a leakage of milk. In the background Tom stirs and comes awake, calling for immediate attention.
It is night. Again. Her thoughts, like twisted kelp, drift upon the currents. She is on a voyage of returning. A voyage spanning centuries of footprints leading out of the birthplace to spread across the globe. Tears always seem close to the surface. They hover like thirsty insects around the naked light bulbs, their buzzing irritating my eyes, dangerously. Old heartrending songs tumble in and out of her consciousness like sad tumblers decorated with faded greasepaint, performing tired acrobatics. Her hand holds an unlit cigarette. Looking down at the cigarette she thinks of Tom. His eyes staring, his tiny hands touching my chin, his ridiculous feet kicking away the soft blankets.
Smoking is confined to the outdoors since her son’s birth. Tonight there is a gentle drizzle falling, besides she cannot bother donning clothes again and she is supposed to be determinedly giving up the habit anyway. Motherhood imposes certain sacrifices. Thinking of the cigarette she has a vision of a small African village, the smoke from its fires gently rolling out across the savannah. Outside the window the streetlights gaze solemnly; judges of late night worriers.
A zebra slowly ambles across the horizon. Its huge buttock muscles quiver as it steps. Its muscles are made for speed, make fine food for the preying beasts, but do not appear fulfilled when engaged in a slow walk. The zebra walks with purpose, unconcerned with the few passing cars. Its feet apparently fail to touch the ground. The zebra pauses mid-stride. It settles itself, spreading its front legs out. Its long neck bows down and its thick, shockingly pink tongue reaches down to lap the night air.
Jonathon lies asleep in the bed behind her. Warm. Oblivious. His long, greying hair lies floating on the pillows. She thinks of seaweed. The ocean stirs within. A traveller’s ocean. The Siren’s call to go beyond. Once I followed her call without pause. Now I pause and marvel where that recklessness has brought me. She takes her eyes away from the window and stares down at her feet. Were they once black? Did they ever travel the sands and grasslands of the ancient land? Sleep seems a long way off.
Early morning. Something startles her and she wakes. Laying in bed she listens but everything sounds normal. She slips out of the bed. For a time she sits in the rocking chair and watches Jonathon’s chest rise and fall. Then her eyes fall down to her own engorged breasts, feels them waiting for Tom’s lips to bring relief. Tom starts to stir and she hears the sound of water being drawn from Africa’s ancient rivers.
Tom is asleep in his cot. She can hear his faint murmurings. Some nights she wakes in terror. Sits bolt upright and listens, her heart racing, until she hears a noise from the cot. No one mentioned this about motherhood. This fear. What dreams call out to little Tom? Does he hear the beating of drums? The roar of the killing lion? Has the haunting begun within his tiny frame? Does he dream at all? Or is he still in the liquid moment of innocent unknowing? The pause before the fall?
Between the window and the poorly lit street a zebra ceases it grazing at nothing and strolls into the distance. Is it the same zebra or one of many? The appearances of the animals no longer startle her. Its stripes, like sharp blades of grass, cut across her locality and send her drifting. She stands under a deep blue sky and watches a herd of wildebeest pass her by. Her hand grips what? A spear? A collection of seeds? A woven blanket perhaps? While her eyes remain fixed upon the stripes her ears echo with the calls of other animals. The shadow of a vulture passes as it swoops down towards some unknown carcass.
She stirs, pulls her thoughts away from the echoes. As her eyes leave the window she notices the zebra has moved close. It stares back at her. Is it angry? Does it remember my bloodline? My history? The feasting upon its flesh? Perhaps it too is dreaming. At this time of night everything seems haunted by spectres of the past. Threads dangle backwards so all can catch tiny, shimmering glimpses of what might once have been.
‘Can’t sleep Suzanne?’ Asks Jonathon as he wipes sleep from his eyes.
‘Just thinking,’ she replies with an awkward smile.
‘You okay then?’
‘I’m fine. Go back to sleep.’ Even these words resonate. Everything resonates like bones knocked together to form a primordial rhythm.
‘Has Tom stirred at all?’ he asks.
‘He’s fine Jonathon, now please, go back to sleep. I’ll join you in a moment.’
‘Okay,’ he mumbles as he easily slips away. He, too, is growing accustomed to her nightly window gazing.
She watches him for moment then returns to looking out the window. Sleep seems distant, like a tiny glow at the edge of the horizon where the sun has begun its ascent. The glow sets her thinking about another sun. She wonders how it must have been in that ancient land, the sun rising upon small villages scattered like shells washed up across the land.
Since Tom’s birth six weeks ago she has spent hours adrift. The ocean full of the tears I and others like me have shed since our expulsion from paradise. Oh Africa, my mother, were we so bad? Or did we ignore you so completely that we left without a farewell? It is not uncomfortable to drift for hours, not totally so. It is more that the sands have been disturbed by the change Tom’s birth has wrought and now she must endure the visions while they resettle into new patterns. At first she was frustrated by this alertness in the still of the night. Now she actively seeks out the strange half world her drifting creates. Like some explorer, her wanders the strange between- hours, not searching for anything concrete, just stretching out and seeing where she might venture.
If Tom should waken she delights in holding him up high a moment and staring into his bright blue eyes before passing him down to her waiting breast. After he has sated himself she holds him against his shoulder, her hand gently patting his soft back while her nostrils swim in the scent of ‘babyness’. She hums unknown tunes, tunes that feel like lullabies from that continent fled centuries before.
While sitting in the twilight created by the streetlights gazing down at Tom suckling, she feels the winds blowing through gnarled trees of Africa’s archaic forests. The trees seem sentient – almost aware that one day they will be replaced by drifting dunes of bitter sand. Like hard gristles of dried up tears. Did you shed them mother? Have we hurt you so much?
She senses Tom’s suckling slowing down and allows herself a gentle exhale. His tiny figure, cradled in her arms, stirs her like no planet possible could. This is a force to be reckoned with, this thing between a child and his mother.
After the burp and the sweet minutes spent drinking in his scent, she puts him back in the cot then returns to the rocking chair. Rocks, to and fro, to and fro, each movement stirring up visions, like picture postcards flicked by unseen hands. Postcards of a continent she has never seen. Never given any thought to except since the birth of her child. As if his creation is a thread that has led her back to the cradle of humanity. Back to her own impossibly distant roots.
Early morning, the light just beginning to damage the night, she sits by the window staring up at the stars. Are these the stars that shone from the hot savannas where once I sat on my haunches and drank, sharing water with elephants and wildebeests? We shared the common foes then, we weaker animals. How swiftly things change, how quickly the toothless gain their first incisors.
She is aware that if she were to lower her eyes the zebra would be there again. She smiles to herself as she shakes her head. Tom shall wake soon, demanding. She can feel his weight in her arms, his lips at her breast. She pushes herself out of the chair and crosses back to the bed, slides in and cuddles close to Jonathon. He mumbles and she moves closer feeling him snuggle his buttocks back into her as acknowledgement of her return.
While she sits drifting in the rocking chair or in traffic jams her flickering eyes capture the zebra’s gaze and her ears thrum with the lion’s hungry song. If she is in the chair it is usually Tom’s developing lungs that break the spell and bring her back to the present. Back to the delicate discovering of this new role. Will I ever grow accustomed to the smell of his skin? May it always remain this marvel.
Sometimes she holds him close and inhales his scalp, catches a glimpse of Africa as it once inhaled our scent, marvelled by her new creation. She runs her hands over the skin of his stomach and feels Africa’s worn-out sand sliding beneath her bare feet, some of it managing to cling as if hoping to hitch a ride to a new begining. How far we have run. How very far. And for what? What was the goal?
If she is in a traffic jam someone’s blaring horn shatters the spell and she returns to her surrounds. Guilt overwhelms her. I must be more careful. I cannot just drift. Tom is in the baby carriage in the back of the car, he relies upon me.
All performed tasks carry an undertow like large sucking fish mouths that threaten to pull her down towards oblivion. Sometimes she feels that it would be an easy matter to let go and fall back into Africa’s cradling arms. While her hands grip cooking utensils or diaper pins Africa’s hot skies whisper stories of times too distant to comprehend. Stories that vibrate deep within; set motions into strange disarray while she succumbs to a hot forgetfulness. The kettle whistles for attention, the refrigerator hums about its miserable loneliness, everything beckons and thrusts her deeper into the waking dream. Only Tom lures her back. Only Tom connects.
Her son rests his head upon her chest. He teeters on the edge of sleep, the fingers of his right hand buried in the tresses of her long hair. She rocks to and fro aware that from the bed Jonathon lies staring at her. She turns to her husband and he smiles.
‘You’re both beautiful,’ he says quietly.
She nods foolishly, feels the tears threaten at the corners of her eyes. Averts them from his gaze by staring out at the zebra grazing between the two lampposts that illuminate the street. Have we travelled long across the grasslands? For water perhaps? Did we drink you dry dear Mother? Is that why we left? Do we sit around the campfires situated at your perilous boundaries and watch the sparks drift into the night sky to become new stars under the world’s expanding consciousness?
Tom’s eyes, heavy with the day’s expense, lose their will, close like silent blinds. She knows the instant he is asleep. So softly, so easily does he slip into a realm she cannot go. Stranded, she waits at the shore while he drifts far, far away. Africa my mother, did you feel like this when we fled (or were abducted)? Did you watch us leave with sadness buried in your breast? Or did you urge us on that journey, pride filling her heart as we spread out like an unravelling blanket?
She lifts her hand and cradles his soft head as she rises up and places him in the cot. She looks down at her sleeping son and wonders at his dreams; how virgin must be their landscape, how unwearied it must be with colours bright and eager and a heart daring and unimpeded. She remembers that heart. Remembers it like an old friend gone walkabout these many years.
Looking down at his small, comfortable head, she thinks of Africa. Young Africa freshly risen from the bones of terrible lizards. Soil exploding with life – not Africa as she is now, tired and too full of experience but as she must have been in that crystallized time when anything seemed possible. Clear faced, vital, her valleys spreading wide to allow for the birth of humanity.
Tom shifts, resettles in the cot. She can still feel the weight of him in her arms. Knows she always will. His weight lifts my weight.
‘Coming to bed? asks Jonathon.
‘Soon,’ she replies, ‘I promise.’
‘Can I switch off the lamp?’ he asks.
‘Please,’ she says quietly as she returns to the chair.
‘Suzanne?’ he asks.
‘Nothing, goodnight, I love you.’
‘I love you too Jonathon, goodnight, I won’t be long, not tonight, I’m tired.’
He reaches across and switches off the lamp and the room shrinks into the dim light of the streetlights. She sits in the chair and thinks about the day. Smiles at Tom’s remembered triumphs. She can feel the ripples his becoming has wrought within. Feels them spreading out. Like a great migration. Again her thoughts turn to Africa. How terrible the pain of that birth, the agony of their ascent into a reason that no longer needed her?
She sits and watches the light dancing into night and rocks to and fro, to and fro, the rocking chair’s wooden legs wearing its space in the thick carpet. She watches her son’s chest rise and fall, rise and fall: A tiny continental plate, moving in dynamic rhythm.
Almost, she reaches out and touches his cheek, touches that childhood left far, far behind in the land before time: Before awareness. Before the sad knowledge of the sands slipping through the gap. The apple had a steep price.
She can smell the smoke from the campfires; can hear the voices murmuring at the encroaching dark while jackals call to each other in savage yips as if death worked in Morse code. Instinctively everyone pulls their children closer, like gold they were, like the living dreams of all possible futures. The village is surrounded by a waterfall of life it is so easy for a young child to drown there, alone, lost, swiftly forgotten.
She lifts her head up and gazes at the ceiling rose. She sees bright skies and tastes rich soil between her cracked lips. Did Jonathon and I once walk together beneath Africa’s clear-eyed skies? My child, asleep in the cot, was he once there also? Are we reverberating? Self-repeating? Has his birth opened up a corridor to my distant beginnings? Africa haunts her being so intrusively that she cannot escape its possessive sweat. Her skin is always flushed, beads always gathering at her temples and top lip. Jonathon has noted her increased temperature while her heat sends Tom into easy sleep.
She looks at the empty double bed. Jonathon has gone out for the evening. She thought she would not miss him. Is glad she does, fiercely. For the first time in months she feels a need, a deep pulse in the marrow of her bones. She realizes that she has not seen the zebra for several days now. The ripples finally resettle; the new pattern grows so familiar it is old.
She yawns, a wide, animal-like stretch accompanied by a loud groan. She pushes herself out of the chair and realises she needs to lie down and sleep. She cannot recall the last time she felt such a desire to lie down and sleep. And for Jonathon to come home and seek contact. She smiles, feeling the love she carries for both her men rise up like a sudden wave. Her eyes fill with tears, such an easy response for her since Tom’s birth.
Later that night she wakes to Tom’s cries. She turns over and discovers Jonathon’s cold space. She reaches out and switches on the lamp. Sits up and sees that his side is unused. She glances at the clock. It is eleven-thirty. Too early for him to be home. Too early to worry though I do anyway. Tom continues to cry and she pushes herself out of bed and hurries to the cot. She lifts her son and sits down on the rocking chair. His head bangs itself against her breast.
‘Hang on little one, hang on.’ She slips her breast free and offers Tom her nipple. He lunges, misses once or twice and then latches on and drinks as if it were his last.
She sits in the chair, dozing as he drinks. Half asleep even as she switches breasts. Finally Tom stops and soon falls asleep. She remains in the rocking chair, waiting for Jonathon to return home, for her son to wake again and call her back into his life once more. Is this how Africa feels? Does she sit under the hot sun, the barren earth sick with grief, waiting for us to return and succour her relief?
In bed that night as her husband and child sleep she lays awake and dreams ardent dreams of Africa’s sad, solitary steps. She senses again the gulf between her and Jonathon. A gulf she wishes to break. She rolls over to Jonathon and ceases to rouse him, succeeds. Even in the joining part of her seems distant, many miles and years distant but returning, like a vessel after a long voyage, she feels the land will soon be reached.