Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Letter O Makes Holy Sound So

They were tall and lean, shuffling through their lives; angled frames casting painfully pointed shadows- as if in their world it was always dusk. In a sense it was, the soft light from the sun was filtered through an emerald cloud, and did nothing to colour the grey flesh which stretched across their bones. When there was a crowd of them, they jutted against each other- a copse of bare winter trees- intimate and yet remote from each other.

As the windy season began, however, the world of the Tall Ones was changed forever.

In small bottles they carried their meals, scooped off the barren tables in the late morning and strapped to their sides. Where they dwelt, the salt had long been mined and scraped away from the soils, and the livestock had fallen prey to fanciful husbandry methods. The indigenous cattle had been bred with foreign strains to encourage swelling of the flesh around the most prized cuts of meat, until, through greed and ignorance, the beasts had mutated into nothing more than stumbling fillets, more rump than their spindly legs could hope to carry, and the breed was lost.

In the gales that strafed the mountains and the plains, the Tall Ones searched for food. They leaned into the wind, so that when in shelter, they tilted slightly forward. A small push in between their sharp shoulder blades would have sent them falling. Failed agriculturalists, they scoured the landscape for abandoned seeds and withering plants, doomed to wander the planet in order to survive.

Their faith was slight- if mustard seeds had still existed, they would have dwarfed the tiny hope that the Tall Ones carried- the hope that somewhere out there lay a new beginning, an unlocking of the shackles that bound them to this desolate existence. They were all priests, and yet none of them were, in this age of unbelief.

And it happened that one of them- it doesn’t matter who- for they were identical in feature and demeanor- fell upon an abandoned tomb. Using his shaking fingers, he pried open the ancient sarcophagus, wheezing at the dank air that billowed out at the interruption of its seal. Within, he hoped to find some remnants of the food the Old Ones had packed in with the desiccated corpse, in order to speed him to some forgotten heaven. Usually, the practice of grave-robbing yielded a handful of dusty morsels.

The robber stumbled from fatigue in the dim light and fell to his bony knees with an audible crunch. The remains within the casket shifted, and the skull tilted, as if in slow-motion, and rolled to the stone floor. With the brittle noise of a cockroach being bitten, it spilt apart. The searcher blinked. In the gloom of the crypt, even as the dust settled, a miracle lay before him. From the impossible darkness of the shattered skull had rolled a smaller skull. Surely that was what it was, with its yellowed roundness and toothy underside. As he peered closer, cautiously, fearing what horrors could be born from the inside of another, he gasped. There was not the inscrutable stare of hollowed eye sockets, but instead a green shoot from the tiny head’s skullcap.

A living plant. Unthinkable.

This kind of news spread fast. They did not speak very much- parched tracheae and elongated larynxes prevented much speech, but, within hours, the entire population knew of the Skullfruit.

They recognized this as the chance to be free from the land of starvation and despair, and also the importance of not destroying their chances. They could not allow greed to rob them of this opportunity for rebirth. Should they share this one miracle fruit among them, they would partake in a fatal sacrament which would usher in their ultimate doom.

Sadly, common sense had long since been distilled by desperation and hunger, and they lacked the ability to act wisely. Sharing one common thought, they turned on each other. Using untrimmed fingernails, they gouged they eyes from their kin, seeking to gain access to the inner reaches of their skulls. Predictably, none of these moist places housed any more of the strange fruit, and so the Tall Ones almost vanished. The only one left, for their numbers were not even, sat on the floor of the bloodied crypt, and slowly leaned forward, gazing at the skullfruit before him. In this world, he was alone, without hope, and doomed to wander the plains forever. He bowed slowly, and muttered a rasping prayer. The skullfruit rustled in the breeze of his supplication, and enjoyed the blast of oxygen which it had missed during the time it had bulged into being inside the skull.

The skullfruit grew. It swelled and spread, sending out roots and leaves, and, finally, occupied the skulls which lay littered about the dusty floor.

In this abandoned place, with just one witness, the skullfruit became first a miracle, then a prince, and finally a king. Just before the last Tall One gave in to the rigours of starvation and loneliness, he had a small vision. In his mind, the onion, for that was what it was, grew legs and became a god, a beautiful being whose inheritance was the universe, and whose powers surpassed the generations of life before.

He gasped a terminal prayer of thanks to the divinity that was within the onion, and surrendered his own life at the roots of one stronger and more magical than he.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Rapes That Never Happened

Hi there, Scott speaking.

Hello, sir, my daughter is raped.

I’m sorry, what did you say?

My daughter, she is raped.

Could you please hold on for a moment while I call a friend who can help you?

Sir, my daughter, she is Somali like me, and she is being raped by two men. She is eleven. She is crying and crying.

And have you been to the hospital. To the police?

The police say we are foreigners, we must go, they cannot help us. We are attacked in the location. They cannot help us. We say, we know the men who raped my daughter- they are our neighbours. They have much beer and they rape her- but the police say go away.

So the police did not take a statement?


And the police did not advise your daughter to have counseling, or offer to examine your daughter using a rape kit?

No. What is rape kit?

It is a special kit to make sure your daughter is ok, and to collect evidence.


And did you take your daughter to the clinic?

At the clinic, they say she is foreigner, they laugh and say “voertsek”. They say “go home to Nigeria”. We are Somali.

So they did not give her tests, or offer her PEP medication or ARVs?

What is this?

Post-exposure prophylaxis drugs, or anti-retrovirals- is case she came into contact with HIV.

No. They did chase us away.

So your daughter has not spoken to the police or had medical help?


But it is important that she does these things, we can help your daughter go to the police station and the clinic.

No, sir, I do not want to go to the clinic. We want to go back to Somalia. But we have refugee status. The UN must take us back to Somalia.

But the UNHCR will not repatriate you while the country is at war. It is in their mandate.

We do not care. We want to die in our own country, not be killed in South Africa. The people in this country are killing us because we are foreigners. We want to go home to die.


This is as much as I can recall of an actual conversation I had two years ago. It was the third such conversation I had in one day while working for a civil society organization. Three women or girls, raped. None received counseling, police assistance or medical care of any sort. They never made statements. They were raped because they were foreigners. Let me say, though, that South African women and girls are just as vulnerable to rape and sexual assault. And just as liable to never go through any medical or legal process following an incident or attack. The poor suffer most. And it’s happening every hour of every day. It’s shocking. This is not a rubber-necking at a car accident post, but just a reminder that our society is not a healthy one, it has deep flaws that can’t quite balance out the scenery, hospitality or business and sporting achievements.

Speak out, if you can, especially for those who don’t have a voice.

16 Days of Activism


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Summer: 1980

The boy looked at his feet. They were small, covered in grubby canvas. But good shoes for climbing and jumping, and that’s what counted. Wiping the last of the sherbet from his small bow-shaped mouth he stood up. His tongue wiggled a loose tooth as he considered the choices: He could spend some time in the old weeping willow near in the garden, or find a jar, catch some insects.

In the end, he chose the tree. They called it the Donkey Tree- the neighbourhood kids- for the horizontal trunk that curved towards the ground before arching its back into the sky, making a perfect saddle, but he preferred the other, higher branches. He’d used some of the supple ones to make bows before, stripping them of leaves and stringing them with cord. On those days, he was maybe a knight, crouching behind the bow window of a castle, or perhaps a Red Indian, whose killing-skills were brutal, both in hunting food and defending the tepee.

But today he just sat swinging his feet, looking up through the branches at the anvil clouds which spun and rolled into noses, ears and grasping hands, or the fanciful horns of a winged dragon. The sun, when it made an appearance, was overly bright, making tears form in the corners of his eyes as it blazed through the fresh green leaves. He looked at his hands, where he’d just developed some callouses on the palms from swinging like Johnny Weissmuller through the trees on ropes which had been strung there for as long as he could remember. The trick was to avoid losing your grip and tumbling into the nettle patch or the ruined walls of a decorative fountain hidden by the blackberry bushes.

The wind breathed on him, cool and noisy, it hissed through the leaves and sounded a little like waves breaking on rocks in the distance. Under the tree he’d left his bike, an old hand-me-down from his brother with straight handlebars. It was scuffed on the saddle and tyres from too many failed wheelies and ramps off kerbs, but still good, despite him having to use his heels to get it to stop. Who wanted to stop, anyway, when the breeze filled out your parka and chilled your brow as you free-wheeled down to the main road?

It was just today. He lost track of the days of the week during the holidays, and didn’t mind that feeling at all. He’d have a few more weeks of setting up his soldiers under the flowerbeds and amongst the rockery, or kicking a ball with as many kids as happened to be around on the field. He’d walk for hours in the countryside, building dams in streams with rotten logs and rocks, or leapfrogging past the cow dung and rabbit droppings. He’d jump electric fences that penned sheep, and hold buttercups under his friend’s chins to see if they liked butter- your chin turned yellow if you did. He’d get stung by nettles, and cure the rash with dock leaves. He’d have swordfights with the cow parsley in the lanes, and find interesting bits of nature to distract him- an injured crow, or an abandoned blackbird’s nest. Sometimes the sun would shine for days, and the soil would start to crack, until a sudden thunderstorm would cleave the sky apart and send down heavy pellets of rain. He’d pretend, then, not to fear being blasted with lightning, or that the puddles would never stop forming in the gutters until the whole world was flooded, but as quickly as it came, the storm would recede, leaving steaming wet tar with rainbows of oil, and worms curling on the soft grass.

It was summer, and time had stopped.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Big Tree, an Allegory

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away from here but still visible on Google Maps there was an average man living in an average house built in an average street, just like yours. He was a man who loved to make furniture in his garage. Every evening, he’d take a cup of tea out to the garage and sit in the cool concrete enclosure with his collection of ancient tools and an assortment of wood.

The man was not always a skilled craftsman. He’d begun his hobby very young, his none-too-bright parents giving him a saw and a hammer for his fifth birthday. After the cuts healed a little, he began to realize that the tools with which he’d hacked and beaten had a purpose. One day, almost by accident, he made a spice rack. His parents hugged each other and congratulated themselves on producing such a fine boy. The boy learned from books he’d taken from the local Library how to make dovetail joints, smooth wood with the grain, and conceal the tiny brass screws with craftsmanlike precision. As he grew in his knowledge, so his physical strength grew, too, until he was able to heft heavy hardwood planks about the room, and make exquisite tables, boxes, chests, cupboards, beds and chairs in the sawdust-scented haven he’d created for himself.

Of course, his parents bragged of their son’s achievements to their neighbours, and those neighbours bragged to their neighbours, until the whole town knew of the boy’s skill with wood. His reputation didn’t stop there. As he reached manhood, he was disappearing into his room each evening and coming out with the most fabulous furniture that had ever been seen across the entire land.

Despite those in power often being the last to hear about what is happening with the common folk, the King eventually heard about the young man, who could make furniture the like of which had never been seen in the history of his land. The King resolved to give the man a Royal Commission to create the biggest table the world had ever seen, so that the King could sit at its head and command the biggest dinner party ever held. He sent his Royal Bugler to blow a summoning sort of tune, and the man came. He did not speak when he heard the King’s Commission, but, rather, bowed deeply and left the room, still bowing, backwards.

The man was astounded. Such a task had never been attempted. He packed a small bag with some chocolate and coffee, and headed for the forest. In order to make a table of such noble vastness, he would need to cut down the biggest tree he could find, and turn it into planks of wood.

For several months he sought such a tree, with no small amount of hunger. It was as he was trying to catch a squirrel so that he could follow him home to his nuts that he remembered the Library. With a stroke of luck, he found his card intact, and went and took out the biggest book he could find. It was called The Mammoth Book of Freakishly Huge Trees. He looked in the index, under “B” for “Biggest”, and soon found his quarry. The biggest tree. Ever.

And so it was that the man awoke the next morning, and, with the biggest saw ever, cut down the biggest tree ever, to cut into the biggest planks ever, to make the biggest table ever seen.

It didn’t take long. The ancient giant did make a sound as it toppled through the forest, but the sound was the deep exhale of an old man, as he falls into permanent sleep. Relief. It took even less time to strip the tree of gnarled branches, each as big as the second biggest tree ever seen, and an entire ecosystem escaped quietly into the forest from the fallen canopy.

Still less time did it take to slice the giant into vast wooden planks, smooth off the coarse splinters and fashion the wood into the biggest, most beautiful, table the world had ever seen.

The King was overjoyed. He summoned his favourite courtiers from across the land, and held a banquet the likes had never been seen before, and were never seen again. During the banquet, the King lifted his massive golden ceremonial goblet to propose a toast to the master craftsman who had created this magnificent piece of furniture, but the man was nowhere to be found.

In his average house, in his average street, the man was troubled. He struggled to sleep, and lay awake, instead, thinking of the biggest tree being turned into the biggest table. As he lay tossing and turning, he had an idea. What if, from this day on, he made tiny furniture? He could save the land from becoming a barren place, and still do what he loved to do.

The next evening, the man slipped into his garage. He rummaged through offcuts of wood until he found what he was looking for. He took the small pieces of wood, all that was left of a now-extinct species of mountain willow, and made a footstool. It was perfect in form and function. But it wasn’t good enough. The man worked all through the night, making miniature jewellery boxes, lampstands and writing desks, until finally, all his wood was gone.

The next evening, he lay in bed again, tossing and turning. Once again, he had an idea. He’d make perfect tiny furniture out of trees he’d grown himself, so that everything he did was sustainable and he’d be exercising total responsibility. And so the next morning, he created a forest. He took seedlings and grafts, pots and bowls, strung the roots with wire and began to landscape the entire garage with his bonsai garden. The trees began to grow.

After a few years of patient pruning and shaping, the first trees were ready. The man took a tiny axe, and felled them with swift blows. Not wanting to waste time, he stripped them of their miniscule branches and microscopic leaves, and worked through the night once more. He made staircases and wardrobes, bookshelves and hatstands, until; once again, all the wood was finished. He stood, towering over the furniture, more beautiful than any doll’s house had ever seen, and wept. He was not satisfied. He took the remaining seeds from the bonsai forest, and planted another, even tinier forest. He made bonsai trees from bonsai seeds, and grew trees that were almost invisible to the naked eye. He spent years almost blinding himself trying to tend to his garden, and finally, when he was old and bent, and much smaller than he’d been in his youth, the smallest trees ever grown were ready.

He gathered the pots and bowls in his aching arms, and took them to the palace. The old King had long since died, choking on a peach pit one evening at one of the many feasts he held at his favourite table. The man placed the pots and bowls on the table and walked away. As he did so, he walked backwards. It was a vast room, and so, as he reversed, his fading eyesight first lost track of the pots and bowls containing the smallest forest ever seen, then, as he continued to limp painfully out of the room, the giant table he’d once made with his gnarled hands also grew smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until finally, it disappeared.