The Cosmonaut

Rešoketšwe Manenzhe

i.         the life seeker

The life seeker resumed his flight. The night would bring rain, as told by the clouds. So the seeker crossed to the border where the deserts met. There, the rain fell in soft patters.

ii.         the baobab

It was the dream that woke the traveller. In it, his mother sat beneath the baobab to narrate her gibberish. She was eloquent at it. Her eyes sparkled with tears that never touched her face, her voice rose and fell, and stopped in places, then began again to recycle her misery.

She had travelled the world and when that was done, settled into the melancholy of her broken heart. She said to him, oh once upon a time, that her journey began at the edge of the Cape. She saw, she said, a cheetah running across a veld. But the world had died by then. There wasn’t rain for a century; the desert had grown and only the tribes from the tropics were said to have survived the blight of 2314. The cheetahs were gone. The rivers and birds and scavengers and carrion eaters, too. As there was once boreal, savanna, tropical, etcetera, there was now only wasteland.

And so, at the age of only thirty years, his mother dreamt an oasis – up north, she said, into Old Botswana; and they called her mad for it. They were right, of course; she was a mad woman. She said this in the dream. Her voice fell to a whisper, “I tell it true that no one, living or dead, has heard this thing to the end,” she said. Then, suddenly, in the way of dreams, she delved into her woes: “When the moon wanes and the seasons change, I will die.”

The traveller cried. He asked: “Does it hurt you to die?”

“No,” she said. “But if you hold on to me, it will rip me apart.”

The traveller looked into his mother’s eyes and felt that he understood sadness. But she didn’t die just then, and he soon learnt she was a woman obsessed with her own mortality. Her cancer was patient in stealing her. When at last it succeeded, she called strange names into the dark, as though she were a wolf greeting her kin in night. Her eyes flashed in sudden sentience; then they closed, and she was dead.

He wanted to tell her he loved her, to help her pass from this world in peace – to keep her from haunting him. But the stillness of her corpse frightened him, and he didn’t want to rip her apart.

“I must go now,” he said. If he chanted the prayer of the departed, he could scatter the dream and leave her memory to dust. “I must leave,” he said, calling to the baobab. “Rest, Mmawe. Do not haunt me anymore. Do not take the dreams I dream, I beg. Do not turn them vile. Farewell.” He inhaled greedily, to his heart’s fill. The journey had been long, and there were times when he forgot the beginning. So he inhaled greedily; then, tightly gathering the seeds into his rucksack, he turned east.

iii.         the cosmonaut

There was a cricket that chirped loudly into the night. It sounded as though it was behind the fridge. But as soon as Peu moved the fridge to squash it, the cricket sounded as though it was behind, under or anywhere near the stove. But she couldn’t see it. So there must have been two of them.

Peu was now sure the first cricket was behind the curtain, and the second one was behind the washing machine. The stove was a clear decoy. If she could get that one, the one behind the washing machine, then they would stop chattering to each other. She was sure they knew each other. She only needed to get one of them and they would stop. She had to squash them before they mated and filled the house with their countless offspring. And the chirping … the chirping would never end. She would never get another wink of sleep.

Ah, yes! There was the male one! – crouched at the corner of that filthy tile! Chirp, chirp, chirp, he went. The bleeding rascal!. There he was now, the chirping cricket that chirped no more, smudged on the filthy tile.

Peu felt the darkness start to lift from her mind. She felt herself start to breathe easy. She just need to get the other one now, the one behind the curtain. Then she could be done. She could finally clean the house. She could eat after that. And maybe she could sleep. But first, first she had to get that other one, the silent one that tried to deceive her by blending into the darkness and silence of the night by pretending it didn’t exist.

Oh no! A bright blue light had pierced the night with a sudden jab. She’d heard that somewhere, probably in a song – that darkness was a thing that could be stabbed. This was what it meant, then. But poetry aside, that bleeding light would shock the cricket into flight. She would hop somewhere else and Peu would never find her. She’d find a new lover. Dammit! Peu had disabled every non-essential in the house. So where was that light coming from?

Feeling a swelling panic, she stepped outside, into the … well, the now disturbed night. Oh! What was she seeing? Oh no! She shook her head with disbelief and shielded her eyes with her arm. The wild garden where, usually, nothing stood, where darkness should have shrouded like an impenetrable blanket – right there, where nothing should have been, she saw a spaceship.

Naturally, she laughed and looked away. She needed to adjust her eyes as well as her mind. When she was sure that her senses wouldn’t deceive her again, she looked back to where nothing should have been, and felt the need to weep. The ship was still there. It was disc-like, with the general shape of a large saucer, but bulging in the centre. It resembled her own spaceship. But hers hadn’t worked in thirty years, so she was sure that the one currently parked in her garden wasn’t hers.

And so, she also felt like laughing, because surely, the ship she now saw wasn’t real. This would turn out like the dog, she knew. She’d thought it was real until it started talking. She’d had to kill it.

The blue light dimmed, and a door opened from beneath the ship. A tall woman in a black spacesuit alighted. In the same way that she had known that a dog shouldn’t talk, Peu was immediately aware that beneath her helmet, the spacewoman’s face was lively and curious. Peu stepped forward … She must have done so because she was slowly getting closer to the fading dazzle of the ship’s light. So she stepped forward one last time to make sure she was still in charge of her body, just to prove it, if only by a strand of reality.

“Hello there,” said the spacewoman. Her eyes were large and black and glassy, her face was long, and it broke into a smile. Her voice was shrill, and, apparently unaware of this shrillness, the spacewoman shrieked her apparent joy rather loudly. “I have arrived! And I’m making contact!”

That was how Peu had known with the dog. It had talked and she had known that it belonged to that part of her mind she couldn’t quite keep light. The spacewoman spoke English. The odds didn’t allow something as ridiculous as that. She was alone and looked human and spoke English. It didn’t make sense.

Peu knew she should return to her house. She still had the second cricket to squash. And she needed sleep. And she needed to find more crickets tomorrow; there were millions of them all around. She just needed a little sleep, a little sleep for just a little while. But she realised that while she watched the spacewoman, the spacewoman watched her. So she shook her head and closed her eyes, adjusting her brain to reality, trying to recall the sound of the chirping cricket and to restore darkness to the place where nothing save nothing should have been. But when she opened her eyes, she found the spacewoman still there.

“I’m sorry,” said the spacewoman. “I didn’t mean to alarm you.” She raised her hands above her head. “See, I mean you no harm. Can you understand me?”

“Are you real?” said Peu.

The spacewoman smiled and nodded. “You can understand me.”

“Of course, I can. You speak English. Are you real?”

“I am,” said the spacewoman.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“I came from Earth …”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

The spacewoman nodded. “Of course, of course. I’m sorry about that. My name is Peu Moboyo. I’m a southern cosmonaut, from Pretoria. I was sent to determine the habitability of this place.”

Peu laughed, and finally, she did weep. “That’s not possible,” she said. “See, my name is Peu Moboyo. I’m a cosmonaut from Earth who was sent here to determine the habitability of this place.” As she said the last part, she pointed to the weeds in her garden, to the empty houses now shrouded in darkness, to the sky, and to everything else that slumbered in silence. She walked two steps closer to the other so-called cosmonaut. “You can’t be who you say you are. Because I am she.”

The cosmonaut walked closer to Peu. “By the Gods,” she said, gasping, choking, apparently having been rendered breathless. Her eyes wandered over Peu, inspecting her. “When did you get here?” she asked, stepping back by a few paces.

“That doesn’t matter …”

“I think it does,” said the cosmonaut. “I am who I say I am. But I think you are, too.”

Peu allowed brief silence to pass before speaking again. She hoped, perhaps foolishly, that in the silence, the cosmonaut would realise her own foolishness. “I could like you,” said Peu, “if you were real. But I don’t think you are.” She then laughed long and loudly, all the while aware that the cosmonaut warily watched her.

Just when her ribs felt like they would break from laughing, Peu stopped and said, “You should take off that thing on your head. Your body can handle the air here. It should be able to, seeing as this is Earth and you’re human. But more importantly, you’re not real so you don’t need to breathe, do you?” She wiped the tears at the corners of her eyes. “My mind is rotting, I see,” she said, shaking her head and turning to return to the house. “There was a time when I could imagine horned lions, blood red doves and Martians.” She spit and shook her head. “And once, a talking dog. A talking dog! But now I can only imagine myself. How pathetic!”

The cosmonaut spoke to Peu’s retreating back. “I know this is Earth, somewhere in our past. But something went wrong because this is from my future. Peu … ma’am, please …”

“Listen,” said Peu, pausing in her step, “I’ve been here long enough to know how this works. I know you won’t disappear simply because I’m aware that you aren’t real. I know you’ll go away in your own time, when I can breathe easy again. I know my mind has concocted some elaborate scenario in which you will need my help to fix your ship and send you back to your mission. I know the rules now. So please play along because I need my sleep. Switch off that bloody light and come into the house.”

After a few heartbeats, Peu heard the hum of the ship grow duller; from her periphery, she saw the night gradually regain its former gloom, and she heard the footsteps of the cosmonaut follow her. Peu resumed her own pace to enter the kitchen, and soon the cosmonaut entered after her.

“Listen,” said Peu, “there’s a cricket in here that’s been chirping all night. I almost had it squashed but you disrupted that. I’m going to need your help finding it. It could have hopped into the dining room or somewhere else in the house. But we need to make sure of that before we follow it wherever it has gone. Here’s what I need you to do: as soon as I move the fridge, I need you to step on the cricket as quickly as you can. If it’s not there, say so and we can move on to the washing machine. We’ll go through all the furniture in here before moving to the next room. Understand?”

The cosmonaut didn’t answer. Instead, she pressed something near the neck of her spacesuit and the helmet slid back with a loud hiss. The suit deflated, the better to hug the woman’s body and improve her mobility. “Understand?” Peu repeated.

The cosmonaut shook her head. “You want us to turn over the whole house looking for a cricket?”

“Yes. But I don’t like how you said it. Your tone was mocking.”

“I’m sorry about that. But I’ve just discovered that something has gone very wrong with my mission and I’ve ended up here, where a woman who thinks I was created by her imagination wants me to help her kill a cricket. Also, how can I help you if I’m not real?”

Peu shrugged. “That’s how it works. The Martian wasn’t real but he helped me. He cleaned the house. He squashed the crickets while I slept. I could sleep when the Martian was here. You might be the same.”

The cosmonaut looked at Peu with sadness in her eyes. She pulled a chair from the table and sat down. “You truly believe that you’re mad, don’t you?”

“There’s no point in dwelling on it, but yes, I am mad.” She averted her eyes away from the cosmonaut; but brought them back when she heard a sigh.

“How do you know you’re mad? How can you be so sure?”

Peu also sat down. She rested her elbows on the table and tried to measure the extent of the cosmonaut’s maturity. Finally, she judged her to be near the age of thirty-or-so summers. There was still naivety in her eyes – a sense of boundless, perhaps even incorruptible sanguinity. Peu took no pleasure in tainting the purity of it, but the thing had to be done and done quickly. Else, the cosmonaut would be stuck in Peu’s world, unable to understand her function in it, for if left alone, she would be ignorant of its rules. So, Peu started: “Do you remember that you nearly died at the age of ten?”

“Of course,” said the cosmonaut. “I remember.”

“Do you remember how it happened?”

The cosmonaut didn’t answer. She hung her head as though in defiance of the truth. Thus, Peu was burdened with narrating the details of her tragedy. “You flung yourself from Devil’s Peak because you thought you could fly,” she said. “The floods had already drowned the entire southern Cape. You wanted to touch the moon, but you fell and the waters of the new sea caught you, then nearly drowned you, then spit you into the Karoo, too far from where you born – where the sun drove you mad.”

“That’s not the way it happened,” said the cosmonaut, her voice indignant. “That’s not the way I remember it.” She also placed her elbows on the table and leaned forward. There, on her right side, starting from her brow and extending to her chin, Peu saw the faded scar that was once an open gash gushing with blood.

“How do you remember it?” said Peu, she, too, leaning forward.

The cosmonaut breathed heavily, her chest rising and falling more rapidly. Her eyes darted suspiciously this way and that, and finally settled on Peu’s own eyes. “I nearly died because … because … the medicine the doctor gave me for my bad dreams made me sick. It made me vomit. One time I vomited blood. But my grandmother saved me. She had roots for that sort of thing, but nothing for the bad dreams; the doctor had the medicine for those.”

“The doctor only gave you medicine after you were found in the Karoo,” said Peu. “He gave you medicine for madness, not for bad dreams.”

“No,” said the cosmonaut. She shook her head. “That’s not the way it happened. I was there. I remember.”

“You don’t.”

“I do,” said the cosmonaut, her voice now raised. “It didn’t happen the way you say it did. It was the medicine that nearly killed me, not … not what you say.”

“If you do remember, then do you remember how your mother died?”

A tender coat of tears formed in the cosmonaut’s eyes. Her breathing got heavier still. Her hands shook, as did her head; it shook and shook and shook, as though denying something that couldn’t be denied. Then, finally, the tender coat turned heavy and sprang to the woman’s face. She buried that face in her hands as her body shook with sobs. “This can’t be right,” she whispered, her voice weakened by her grief. “How did you get here?” she cried. “How did I become you?”

Peu felt compelled to do something; for, real or not, the cosmonaut believed herself to be real. It seemed that she pitied herself, for she pitied Peu, and believed Peu to be some feasible iteration of herself. Although Peu had accepted the condition of her own madness, she knew that it took others a while to do so. And often, it took several turns into fits of sadness and disappointment. If she could ease her visitor’s sudden burst of melancholy (which was bound to evolve rapidly if left alone), she would do so.

“Wait here,” she said to the cosmonaut.

She stood up and briskly walked to the bedroom, where she retrieved the lantern she kept on her bookshelf. She returned to the kitchen to find the cosmonaut still weeping. “Come with me,” she said. “I want to show you something.”

“I need a moment,” the cosmonaut whispered.

“What I’m going to show you, it will make everything better.” As she spoke, Peu realised, with a sense of irony, that she was working particularly hard to ease her own imagination. Nevertheless, she patiently waited as the cosmonaut wiped her tears and presented herself with some dignity. “This way,” she instructed. The cosmonaut followed her out of the house and down the serpentine road to the shed. Weeds promised to reclaim the ground there as well.

During the day, sunlight illuminated  the healing barrenness of her world so romantically. The baobab trees, with their fat trunks rising indomitably, littered the horizon with their hungry branches. In three weeks or less the flowers would open, shyly prettifying the night, and following that, the acid fruit would bud and ripen and rot, and the trees would retreat into barrenness once again. If her mind allowed it, the cosmonaut would stay long enough to see it all.

Presently, as they neared the shed, Peu thought she heard the cricket in the house begin to chirp. This could be her last chance in a long while to finally squash it. She knew she needed to turn back. “Do you hear that?” she said.

“Hear what?” said the cosmonaut.

“The cricket in the house; it has started chirping again. Can you hear her?”

“How do you know that she’s female?”

“I just do. Anyway, can you hear her?” said Peu, slowing her pace. The night was as quiet as ever, but the chirping … it was distant and fading but clearly there. “She’s not as loud as before but I’m sure she’s at it again. Can you hear her?”

“No,” said the cosmonaut. “You know, female crickets don’t chirp.”

“How do you know that?”

“It’s common knowledge, I think. The males chirp as a mating call. I’m not completely sure but it’s probably something as practical as that. There’s no malice behind it, no personal investment in harming you. It’s just a species trying to survive.”

“Well, you’re new to my world,” said Peu, hurrying her pace again. “You’ll soon learn. You’ll see. I was like you when I first came here. When I was a child, crickets narrated the passage of night; it was like the sound of home. But now all they do is steal my sleep. Malice or not, I need rest and they give me no peace.” She stopped walking. “Anyway, we’re here.”

They had reached the shed. It loomed like a shadow in darkness, a redundant blackness that formed the general structure of an indistinct thing, with Peu having found it more from familiarity than clear direction. She handed the lantern to the cosmonaut. “Hold this.” Then she moved into the light to sort her keys; when she found the right one she turned around and slotted it in the padlock, turned, and opened the door. “Give me the light,” she said, holding out her hand. The cosmonaut did as she was told.

The sparse light revealed the interior of a wooden shack lined with makeshift, ramshackle wooden tables. Some of the tables held pot plants; some held piles of dirt, broken twigs, seeds of different sizes and shapes and colours, and makeshift garden tools. The dirt floor resembled the tables with its scattered contents and as a result, there was hardly anywhere to stand or walk.

“This is my shed,” said Peu, waving the lantern across the room, dimly illuminating the dirt and seeds and general disarray. She hadn’t expected the cosmonaut to immediately appreciate it, but she knew that with time, the significance of her simple nursery would fully unfurl itself.

“You’re a gardener?” asked the cosmonaut.

“Yes, in a way. I planted everything that grows here. I started with the baobabs. Then the weeds came, and the wildflowers and other trees. I think the baobabs called them here. Soon the insects came, then snakes and other crawlers, and once, once, a dog …”

“The talking dog?” interrupted the cosmonaut.

“Yes,” said Peu, turning her gaze to the cosmonaut. “How did you know he talked?”

“You told me.”

“Oh,” said Peu, returning her eyes to a pile of seeds at the edge of a table nearest to her. “I suppose I did. Anyway, I started with the baobabs. My grandmother gave me the seeds when I was assigned my first mission; to spread into the dying world, she said, to heal it. She was a kind woman, my grandmother.”

“I know,” said the cosmonaut quietly. “I remember.”

“Of course. Of course, you would. What did you do with your seeds?”

“I buried them with my grandmother, after she died. I didn’t have anything sacred to give her for the afterlife. So I gave back the seeds.”

“You didn’t plant them?”

The cosmonaut shook her head. “I didn’t want to waste them.”

“But you did. You wasted them. You buried them with the dead. Was it because of the guilt you felt over your mother?”

“I buried them with a sacred soul.” She shook her head again. “Why do you care, anyway? You don’t think I’m real. My seeds shouldn’t be real, either.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Peu. “But you shouldn’t have buried them. Your grandmother wanted you to plant them. Real or not, because you failed, it means there’s a part of my mind that has failed to create the oasis I’ve created here. This is the first time that’s happened.”

You planted everything that grows around here?”

“Like I said, I planted the baobabs,” said Peu. “The baobabs called the flowers. And the flowers called the weeds. And the weeds called other trees, and other things too. And I took the seeds from all of them and spread them.” She realised that her voice was quivering with emotion. She looked at the visitor and saw that her face was dancing between disbelief and pity. “I don’t expect you to believe me,” she said. “But I thought you might like to see that yes, this place can sustain life. I think … well, I’ve resurrected the savanna … here, anyway.”

The cosmonaut’s eyes continued to bore into Peu’s, and Peu surmised that with each passing second, the cosmonaut delved deeper into disbelief. Finally, the cosmonaut said: “You created this … this oasis all by yourself?”

“Yes,” said Peu, nodding. “Well, the baobabs helped me.”

For what must have been the millionth time, and to Peu’s exasperation, the cosmonaut shook her head. “That’s not possible.”

“Says who?”

“Me.”

“And who are you to say I couldn’t have done this?”

“Listen,” said the cosmonaut, walking close to Peu and slightly tilting her head to her right. She gave a small smile – the kind people once used when Peu was a child and they wanted to convey their kindness to her. “Listen,” said the cosmonaut, “this oasis stretches on every side for nearly a hundred kilometres. There are thousands of plant species that, by our calculations, have been flourishing here for hundreds of years. You’re at the centre, yes, and everything seems to spread from here, but you couldn’t have possibly started the process that created … well, that created the life flourishing here. Especially not from a few baobab seeds.

“This kind of rehabilitation would require a far more complex system than what you propose. You’d need rain, or a substantial water body, or some kind of sophisticated irrigation system. You would need bees for pollination … or bats for nocturnal plant species. A symbiotic system would have to develop for the species to carry on for generations. I’m sorry but what you’re saying simply isn’t possible. It’s too primitive and … well … simplistic.” She stretched her lips as though she was smiling, but not quite, because she folded her lower lip into her teeth, and the look in her eyes was still one of mingled disbelief and pity, and, Peu was dismayed to see, one of confidence, for the cosmonaut believed her own words. “Surely you realise that,” she finished.

“You have a small mind,” said Peu, but before she could complete her thoughts the cosmonaut interrupted her by saying, “You’ve been here for too long. You’re not mad. You’ve just been alone for too long, so you’ve stopped trusting your mind and started imagining …”

Peu interrupted the cosmonaut. “I trust myself enough to know that I created this place,” she said. “But you don’t. You only believe what you want to believe, and you want me to believe it, too. But I don’t believe you because I know the truth. You’re still new here. But you’ll learn soon. You’ll see.”

The cosmonaut nodded, but Peu knew that it was not in agreement, but to placate her. This had happened before. Before he left, the Martian had been the same. He had easily allowed Peu to hold her ideas not because he agreed with her, but because he was a creation of her own mind, and, although he had a will of his own, her will, being born from her existence, was stronger, and could bend his whenever she wanted. That was the way her mind worked. She knew that. That was how she could separate her imagination from reality, and she had never failed in doing so.

“I know who you are now” said Peu. “I see what you are?”

“And who am I?” said the cosmonaut.

“You’re the doubt in my mind.”

“Okay, okay,” said the cosmonaut nodding. “If you say so.”

“That’s not a bad thing. You’re not a bad thing. It just means that my mind is learning new ways to deal with both my condition and my achievements.”

“Like something to keep you humble?”

“Something like that, yes.”

“Maybe it is a bad thing. Your mind is cruel to you. It makes you doubt yourself.”

Peu shrugged. “It’s kinder than yours. Yours hides how your mother died.”

“I know how she died. I simply choose not to wallow in it.”

“Yes, yes. I suppose I was the same as you. But the years wore me down.”

“And you probably stopped taking your medication.”

“Like you said, it made you sick. It made me sick too.”

“It also made me sane.”

A silence stretched between them. Then, after a long while, Peu said to her visitor: “Do you feel better now?”

The cosmonaut chuckled. “Strangely, I do.” She smiled. “Thank you.”

“We can go back to the house. You may take a few baobab seeds if you want. You know, to replace the ones you buried. You should take them with you when you leave, when your ship is fixed. You can finally plant them.”

“Would you like to come with me when I leave?”

“Oh no,” said Peu laughing. “I couldn’t leave this place. I don’t know what’s out there. I can’t enter your mind the same way you can enter mine. I don’t know if I would survive.”

“But don’t you feel lonely? Don’t you want to leave this place?”

Peu thought about it for a moment. Then, deciding that it was unnecessary since the cosmonaut surely knew the answer already, she said, “I don’t think what I want matters. I don’t think that’s how it works. I didn’t want the Martian to leave, but he did. I didn’t want for you to be here, yet here you are. And when you leave, I know I’ll miss you too. But you’ll leave, anyway. And I will never see you again.” She shrugged. “Besides, my job here isn’t done. There are many more trees to plant, because they will call other extinct things back to life.”

“What if …” started the cosmonaut, but her words failed her, and she conceded, instead, to sigh deeply. Then she tried again. “What if you’re a part of my imagination? What if I’m the one who created you?”

“I thought about that when the Martian was here,” said Peu, nodding. “But it’s not possible.”

“But what if we’re both real?” continued the cosmonaut. “I mean, in that case, you could leave with me, couldn’t you?” As she spoke, the cosmonaut had a look of beseeching in her eyes, of hope, of desperation and a willingness to be deceived.

This, too, had happened before. The Martian had so wanted to be real that he had convinced himself, for a while, that he was Peu’s son. He had begged her to gather her seeds and set north with him, for there, he said, there was a tribe of survivors. He said, too, that a living cheetah had been seen in the Namib, running across a veld.

But Peu had known that there was only wasteland there. And the cheetahs were gone. That was how she had known that the Martian wasn’t real – he had spoken of a world that wasn’t real. “This is where I belong,” said Peu.

“But I can’t leave you here,” said the cosmonaut.

“You have to,” said Peu. “Come now. We must go back to the house. There aren’t many hours left in the night and we must still find the cricket.”

iv.         the traveller

Peu knew she was dying. Sometimes when she looked at herself in the mirror, she saw that she wasn’t quite solid – she saw a translucent form of a woman who wasn’t quite all there – a fading spectre, and if she wasn’t careful, sometimes things she held fell through her hands because she stopped being there for a moment. She faded in and out of existence like a television hopping from one channel to another. Her body was weaker. Her eyes were failing. Her teeth were falling, and there were times when her memory deceived her. But not today.

Today she remembered, for instance, the energy-pocket in the cosmos where, if a cosmonaut slipped through by accident, he or she would arrive in a corrupted iteration of the universe. Peu herself had once slipped through and found herself faced with a mad version of herself. She had broken some unknown law of existence and for her price, her life had, quite literally, started to seep out of her.

But that was all a dream. Her doctor said so.

“How are you feeling today?” he asked her. He held a notepad and often, he scribbled things she said, or observations he made, or prescriptions he thought might be helpful for her supposed dementia. These things he didn’t tell her, but she guessed, for she was once a cosmonaut and knew about the intricacies and habits of science.

“I don’t like this new medicine you’re giving me,” she said. “It makes me sleep too much. And when I’m not sleeping, I feel drowsy. I spend half my day trying not to sleep. I don’t dream anymore. And when I dream I don’t remember the dreams when I wake up.”

The doctor chewed the inside of his mouth. “I was afraid that might happen,” he said. He scribbled something on his notepad and tapped the bridge of his nose with his pen. “But how are you feeling, otherwise?”

“If you’re asking about my death,” she said, “the answer is the same as the last time you asked. I’m still dying. The only difference is that I’m going faster now. Something must have gone wrong for my son.”

“And you still believe this is because you visited another world where you met an older version of yourself?”

Peu threw her hands in the air and dropped them, with quite the flair, back on her lap. “You don’t believe me,” she said. “How can I tell you what I feel when you don’t believe me?”

The doctor smiled. He reclined into his chair and rested his right leg over his left. “Does it matter what I believe?”

She started to form her argument in her mind. But the moment to tell it all to him never came because just then, the room was bathed in a sharp blue light and as was always the case when this happened, Peu found herself having been transported from the pristine confines of the asylum and into a sunlit veld. She now sat beneath a baobab, and beside her was Motsamayi. She greeted him, “Hello, Motsamayi.”

He looked startled. “Mmawe!” he exclaimed.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s alright. I didn’t expect you to come so soon.”

“I told you, when the seasons change and the moon wanes, I will die. We don’t have much time left. Where are we?”

“Beneath the baobab,” he said. “Where I buried you.”

“I see, I see,” she said, looking around. She recognised the trees, because baobabs were like people; if you looked hard enough, every tree carried a trait that wasn’t present in the others. The veld, too, was familiar, as it should be, because she had given it life with seeds given to her by a mad woman.

“You’re still travelling north, aren’t you?” she said.

“How did you know that?” said Motsamayi.

“I gave you seeds and sent you there.”

“Oh,” he said. “I suppose you did.”

“Anyway, why did you call me?”

“I need to tell you a story,” he said. “I need to tell you about my journey.”

Peu looked into her son’s eyes and felt that she understood sadness. But he didn’t dig into his story just then, and she soon learnt he was a man who wallowed in his own existentialism. Then, suddenly, in the way of dreams, he was overtaken by sobs that shook his body and reddened his eyes. He said: “I think I’m lost, Mother. I think I went too far west.”

“Where are you now?” she asked.

“The desert. Where the Namib meets the sea.”

She wanted to show him the way, to help him escape his waywardness. But just then, a cold and sharp blue light flashed before her eyes and she felt a sudden stillness in her body. The light stabbed her in her heart. She breathed once, and when the light was gone, so was Motsamayi. She had reached the end, then.

She called her grandmother’s name into the wind, her great grandmother’s, and the name of everyone who had gone before her. She needed to find their spirits so they could show her the way to the afterlife. “I must leave,” she said, calling to the baobab. “Take the dreams I dreamt, I beg, give them to the traveller. He is lost. Help him find his way. Farewell.”

She breathed greedily, to her heart’s fill, for the journey was ending and at last, she could breathe easy. The night would summon wolves from the shadows, as told by the moon. So Peu travelled to the fallen bridge crossing into the ghost-world. The trees would miss her, they would weep for her. And so, for the first time in generations, rains fell.

Rešoketšwe Manenzhe is an engineer who works in mining research. But sometimes she’s a storyteller. She has won the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and the 2020 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award, and she was the first runner-up for the 2019 Collins Elesiro Prize for Fiction. Her short stories and poems have appeared in the Kalahari Review, Fireside Fiction, FIYAH, and the 2017 Sol Plaatjie European Union Anthology, among others. If you happen to meet her, please ask her about her forthcoming novel from Jacana Media. It’s called Scatterlings, and she’s sure you’ll love it. But please, also talk to her about the endangered wild fruit Balobedu children once enjoyed in summer.

 

*Image by Martin Reisch on Unsplash