A Road Called Love
Here. There is love. Inside my mother’s sacrifice reaching for fleeting hope. I knew this. I know this now. There is love in this car as we drive on the M1. You turn to face me and smile. Your eyes tell of someone lost. Your smile weighs down the silence between us that has been going on since this morning. I smile back. You turn your head to face the road and there it is.
In the hospital emergency room, I wake from darkness in a frantic state. The nurses pin me down, but all I want to do is reach for you. I ask for you. The nurses tell me to calm down, a useless exercise that gives them a reason to sedate me.
In a dream, we are walking down Bells Street for no reason. You hate walking, I hate walking. We have walked long distances in our parallel lives. We used to walk to different schools but the distances are the same. We used to walk to the taxi rank, different townships, but the distances are the same. We used to walk from the taxi stop to our office parks. Different office parks but the distances are the same. We have walked the desire out of us. But here we are. Walking. We reach the end of Emerald street and at the T-Junction we choose to turn left and continue walking up Poloma road. You take my hand into yours and ask me what I think our love means. I say our love is political and you pause.
“If God is love, and God is a white man, then love is a white man?” you ask.
I remain silent.
“Think about it, we have essentially surrendered our lives to God, right?”
I remain silent.
“So, that means we have surrendered our lives to a white man.”
“God is not a white man.” I reply
“—No, I don’t want to do this right now!”
This is how our fights always start. I hate discussing religion with you. We continue walking until we reach a junction that turns onto Dom street. We are silent most of the way, you turn to smile at me. I smile back. This is your way of apologising.
I must have been sleeping for hours when I wake. I struggle to sit up on my bed. There is no one else in the room. I yell for help and a nurse comes. She tells me not to panic. My eyes scan the room in search of your face. I pile up all the dead things inside of me and bury them beneath a sigh. I immediately ask her if you are okay, but she ignores me. There is food on the bedside table. She pulls over the tray and places the food before me and walks out. We have been in an accident. I stare at the food for a while before touching it. Last night, we fought about how you make chicken. You like it slightly white and soft. I like it white and tough – overcooked. Our fight escalated from the chicken, to about how I leave the kitchen dirty whenever it’s my turn to cook. We went on and on about your mother, about me sending money home, about your co-workers, about my best friend, about your rituals and back to my religion. This is how our fight ended – with God. You slept in the spare bed that echoed a fable nursery. Afraid to colonise the bed, I stayed on my side and in a foetal position cried myself to sleep. It is never about the chicken or the kitchen, it is always about her. My love remains a shadow cast too soon on the brightness of her death. Everyone, including you, compares me to her. In the morning, with nothing good to come out of it, we choked on our hellos and were suffocated by the awkwardness in performing our morning rituals. Instead, I bathed alone and listened thereafter to the tapping water as you showered. You knocked before entering our room, and I opened the door without saying a word. We dressed in silence and held on to our anger. We dissolved our apologies into smiles and proceeded to the car. On any other day, we would argue about whose turn it was to drive, but this time, I slipped into the passenger’s seat and waited for you. A black funeral. A Saturday morning ritual. I didn’t want to go to the funeral. I hate your family. They hate me. I don’t want to perform my womanhood by displaying how domesticated I am. I am more of a stray. You know this. Your aunt died a wicked woman, I don’t see why I am needed at the funeral, but I couldn’t refuse when you asked me to accompany you. You have not grown tired of forcing your family to accept me. It’s been three years, you always say. You drove, with the patience of an elderly citizen, even though you knew we were late. Still, I said nothing. I am wearing a clean hospital gown covered with the stench of the dying. The nurse returns with a clipboard in hand. I ask about you, again. You are resting in peace, she says. She suggests I do the same. She writes on her clipboard and proceeds to inject me with something. It’s to calm me down, she insists.
I tell her the story of how we met. It’s uneventful really, you approached me at an industry training. You worked for my dream company, and I held the skills required for a vacant position. I continue to bore the nurse with our love story: of how we had sex on our first date and how we were pregnant by the third month of dating, how your wife died two months before we met, how your friends and family hated our relationship, how none of your family came to our wedding. I couldn’t tell the nurse we lost the baby. How we lost the baby. Why we lost the baby. By the first year of us dating, our love was wrapped in grief and silence and yet we still got married. We tried having another child. This is what would make me real to you – what would humanise me as your wife – make your family accept me. Especially since your first wife couldn’t bear children. We tried but failed. I just wasn’t falling pregnant again. You kept a picture of your first wife in your wallet, which I was never allowed to touch. You made me do all her favourite things. I hated it. You knew this.
In the dream, we are still walking but I am growing tired with every step. You ask if I want to rest. I say no. We reach Bloubos road, there is nothing here for us. We stop. I sit on the paving while you lean against the stop pole.
“Will you leave me for a white man?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“You have so much faith in one. You kneel before him and bare your heart out to him daily.”
“God is not a white man.”
“Then what is he? What God would kill a Black child before he is even born?”
I remain silent.
You remain silent.
You hate the fact that I am Christian. I hate you for this. The silence between us is a game we play. We blame each other without saying anything. You blame me for not seeing the sangoma who told you we would lose the baby. I blame you for not praying hard enough. You say our love is cursed. I say God is our missing link. I get up and start walking. You watch me for a while before you join me. We keep walking until we get to the Garage at the corner of Mills Drive. We are parched but don’t stop to buy some water. The thirst is a form of sacrifice. A punishment we endure in the hopes of finding something on this walk. There is no true purpose to why we are walking and yet we just keep going. We turn right onto Main road and continue walking. It is only when we get to the dam behind the McDonald’s that we realise we are alone. We have been walking without seeing any people around or any car driving by. You want to swim in the dam. You can’t swim. You ask me to teach you. I want to say no, but I don’t. We make our way through the marshy land and wade through the waters until you throw yourself into the dam. You are swimming. I don’t know how. You can’t swim. I join you. You grow gills on the side of your neck and dive deeper into the water. I join you. Underneath, everything is bright and slimy. We are laughing. There is joy here. I want to stay in the water for a little longer, but your face changes. Your eyes turn into sapphire and your hair, a raven black, turns into silver. Your skin turns green and your fingers grow into long seaweeds. You swim deeper and deeper, sliding through the light as though you were meant for this. I swim up to the surface, frightened by this image of you. In the time that I’ve known you, you have never seemed so alive. I make my way out of the dam and find you waiting for me on the only piece of rock there is. We make our way back onto the road, and our clothes are dry, untouched by the water in the dam. We do not find this strange, instead you say:
“It’s beautiful to be alive, to truly be alive.”
I remain silent.
You say this as though you have never known life.
“People like us are living but not alive. Thank you for swimming with me.”
I remain silent.
We continue walking in silence and turn onto Crest road. Your face tells of a man who doesn’t want to turn back. I am tired. I want to rest, but I also want to continue walking. I am thirsty too, but I have no desire to quench it. There is a simplicity in our love that is unwound by our walking. So we continue. The houses are dancing to an obscure hymn. The sun refuses to set even though we have been walking past horizons. We reach Tatel road. You are tired. You stop at the gate of the cemetery and turn to face me.
“For always making the chicken how I like it.”
“I’m sorry too. For always leaving the kitchen dirty.”
We go back and forth apologising for everything we’ve done to hurt each other.
“I’m sorry for making you carry the pain alone.”
“I’m sorry for blaming you.”
“I’m sorry for not saying ‘good morning’.”
“I’m sorry for bathing alone.”
A baby begins to wail in the distance.
“I’m sorry for making you go to the funeral with me today.”
“I’m sorry for not trying harder.”
“I know it wasn’t about the chicken, it was about her. That’s how she liked her chicken.”
“I’m sorry for leaving the kitchen dirty. I know she liked to clean the kitchen while she was cooking.”
You turn and start running in the direction of the wailing child. You stop, turn to face me and smile. I smile back.
You turn and start running again. I run after you. The nurse is doing something to me. She pins me down. I want to tell her to stop. I want to tell her she is slowing me down. She is calling out for help. I am running after you. I am slowly running out of breath. There are three others now pinning me down. I want to stop running but I don’t. I keep running. I see you pick up the abandoned child. I am drawing near, but the road is stretching my scars thin. A woman appears and you embrace her. The three of you start walking into the horizon. I call out to you. I keep running towards you. You keep getting further and further away. The nurse places a mask over my face, I want to tell her she’s suffocating me, that I am running out of breath but need to get to you and the baby. She injects me again. I can feel the sedative slowing me down, but I keep going. I reach you and the baby. The woman whose face I know from the picture in your wallet is carrying my child. She cradles him in her arms. You all turn to me. I ask you to take the child and come with me. You refuse. I try to hold you, but this time I can’t. Your face changes again. Your eyes turn into amber and your hair turns gold. Your skin is blindingly bright.
“We are made human again,” you say.
You smile at me then at the baby and then at the woman. I smile back. The sun is now setting. I want to say ‘I love you’ but there it is.
I am in a room with no lights. I imagine you to be next door. I am at peace knowing this. Thinking this. Believing this. I think of last week, of how you wept in my arms after we made love. How you held me thereafter, and I wept in your arms. We stayed up all night drinking wine, talking about politics, blackness, relationships, the system, change, technology, and I even convinced you to pray with me. You prayed in silence, and when I asked you what you prayed for you told me you prayed that God kept us, that you asked for us to be alive again, for us to find our love again. I should have asked you which God you prayed to, but I didn’t. I close my eyes and imagine your face. The weightless silence is disrupted by a raspy yet energetic voice.
“You are lucky to be alive, but I do have some bad news,” the voice says.
I open my eyes. I am still in the hospital but in a different room now. I turn to face the doctor.
“We managed to remove all of the glass and repair most of the damaged tissue. You have stabilised, but you won’t be able to walk again,” she says.
“What about my husband?”
“Your husband died on the scene ma’am, my condolences,” she replies.
There is silence.
“May I please have a glass of water?” I ask.
Sibongile Fisher is a writer based in South Africa. Her short story ‘A Door Ajar’ won the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize, was shortlisted for the 2017 Brittle Paper Literary Prize and the 2018 Nommo Awards. She won the 2018 Brittle Paper Literary Award for Creative non-fiction for her essay ‘The Miseducation of Gratitude’ published by Afroanthology in Selves Anthology. She is passionate about accessibility to arts and technology for teenagers across the globe.
*Illustration: ‘How Can I Hold on to Loss’ by Sef Adeola.