Words: …100 :3
11 12 June 2011
It is always winter, now. The trees are a delicate tracery of twigs, black against the grey skies, and the rotted branches grasp me, clawlike, each step a battle. Frost crunches beneath my worn boots as I crest the rise. Below me lies the valley, indistinct in the dawn mists that rise from the river. The cold enters my lungs like martial steel. The ring stretches before me, a mile wide, cloudy circles retreating into darkness and unknown depths.
I wish I could say this was the only site. It doesn’t match the great ring at Auschwitz, twelve kilometres across, the weight of millions boring into the earth. In New York, 9/11’s cone punches the soil like a fist, concentric circles of horrified loss. This few hundred metres of psychic wound is a locus, I think; it stands for more than the sixty-two massacred, concentrating the atrocities across the province into one great wound in the earth.
A single bloody decade is memorialised here, as it wasn’t when it happened. The ones we can’t identify are worse – solemn, incomprehensible, mathematical mutilations that mark a magnitude of loss our history ignored, or can no longer recall.
We have given up trying to account for the rings. Like the winter, they pass on history an inscrutable moral judgement; we have been all too aware that the billions who starved have created no rings of their own. This disfigurement is of our own making. I do not know if the realisation is enough, but I hope. Like others before me, I will shortly walk down this slope to plunge into the cloudy, geometric depths – to fall, endlessly, appropriately, into dissolution.
None return from that journey. None deserve to. If all who survive sacrifice themselves, it will barely begin to ameliorate our crimes.
It would have been funny if it weren’t so tragic. The city spent billions of Rands on the stadium alone. I don’t even want to think about all the extra money that went into advertising, improving transport, and so on. But the alien invasion put a real spanner in the works. The world watched as we hung our heads in shame and admitted that the 2010 World Cup could not be held in South Africa. That Cairo would have to be Soccer City.
At first it seemed like the imported trees were just growing a bit faster, flowering a bit more than usual. So we just laid on extra landscaping staff; we’re always looking for job creation opportunities that don’t just mean another few hastily trained security guards. We joked that even the shrubs had caught Football Fever. We stopped joking after we lost the first highway. Cutting back the branches only gave a few hours grace. Crews would work through the night, hacking back enough to clear the whole road by rush hour the next morning. By noon the roads would be covered again. Thick, hard, branches with dark, sticky, fruit blocking the way. And always a few trapped bakkies: a few idiots thinking they could get through.
So then we called in the Volunteer Wildfire crews. They helped us plan and execute a controlled burn. That looked like it was going to work, for a day or two. Then the branches came back, thicker and stronger than before. Like they had learned something from the Fynbos about how to deal with fire.
Then, the stadium. We could probably have put up scaffolding or thrown new concrete slabs to fix the walls that were cracking and crumbling from the expanding vines, but there wasn’t a lot we could do about the tree growing in the centre of the pitch. It only took a week to cover the whole field. The botanist from UCT said that it should have taken hundreds of years to get that big.
The day after that, the flying saucer landed.
That’s when I quit.
In the United States, in Nevada, there is a lake. Beside this lake is an airfield with its buildings and sheds, warehouses, hangers, garages and yards. Inside are the dead bodies of grey humanoids, stretched out as if asleep on gurneys. And a giant ring which, when stepped through, will take you to the stars. Also, a machine the size of your hand that will show you your past; a crashed UFO that our fine engineers are still examining; the offices of a shadowy cabal that was brought together by Harry S. Truman to hide the truth.
These are secret things. We keep them hidden from you because knowing them will harm you. All the things which are a danger to society and the world, those things are here: the Ark of the Covenant, the true map of the land-surface hidden under the Antarctic ice-shelf, drawn circa 500 – 550 CE.
We ensure that nothing escapes. For your protection.
Inside yourself, in your heart, is a box. This box is locked with your mind and with your emotions; inside is the person you first loved and first lost. There is the Alsatian you grew up with, who you held while the vet put down. And that is your fear that your legs are too thin, your gut too large, your eyes too big, your lips too small. Those are the people who laughed at you when you were growing up; and dead grandmothers; broken homes; alcohol.
Hiding in the corner, under the blankets, are your forgotten dreams.
The locks around your heart are mostly strong. They ensure that nothing escapes. So we think only of the aliens who are coming — or who are perhaps already here. That God is about to call us up, that the sinners will be punished, and that the government should stop hiding the truth from us.
Sometimes we think of where our Alsatian is buried, although we no longer live in that house.
Everything else is rumour and conspiracy.
I have no weight. I rise like feather on hot air, higher and higher. The air grows cold but I don’t feel it. The ground falls away, strange and foreign to me, bleak and fading like a memory. Between high branches, the stadium winks at me, like a blind eye. Waters recede. Buildings stand, meaningless like broken teeth, artefacts of a test I have passed. I don’t look around me; in the corners of my being, I know I am not alone. Ahead, celestial birds, imagined and beautiful, swoop and play. Their song is a silver path. I follow.
“Is this lechery?”
“Larceny. There’s a sign.”
“Excuse me, repentance?”
“There’s cubicles set up in the stadium. Bring own water.”
“Look, I’m not supposed to be here.”
“You’ve never sinned?”
“I’ve been preparing for this all my life. I’ve not touched women, or liquor. I’ve not done any of these things. I’ve kept myself pure.”
“Ah, I see. Pride is on floor six. Prepare to wait. Next!”
It’s a Saturday, right, beautiful day, here we are. Rover ‘n me, the ball, the park in spring. God, things are just sprouting, aren’t they, little parcels of life, just goes to show, that’s just the kind of day it is. Well, I gotta tell ya, I never really thought about it. I mean, I didn’t think it would happen, right, and if it did, which it wouldn’t, but if it did, well, I wasn’t gonna cut it. I knew that. Hardly an angel, me.
But here’s the thing I didn’t expect, the thing that runs through my mind as they all rise into the sky, the chosen ones, the ones that made it:
Damn, I’m gonna miss that dog.
That’s when he wags at me, from up high. I swear he does.
It was always a challenge to control the mist. It really did have a mind of its own. Well, not really a true mind of its own it was mist after all, but it wasn’t predictable. And that’s what made it hard to control. Not as hard as water – that was for the really talented ones. The gifted ones. Sasha wasn’t a gifted one.
But controlling the mist, that was pretty good. And Sasha was pretty good at the theory of it, full marks and everything. But actually doing it? That was harder, it took a lot of concentration. Steady, fine concentration, a moment’s slip and it would evaporate. But that wasn’t Sasha’s problem, Sasha’s problem was that it also took a lot of time to call the mist. Needing ten minutes to call up some mist from a lake, in the morning, wasn’t going to help give Warriors cover. The Warriors always needed cover. Sasha often wondered why – it was like a herald to their coming but the Warriors wanted it, it was tradition.
Sasha’s use to the Warriors depended to the speed in which the mist developed and cloaked the ground. If it took too long, there would be no use for it. It had to be fast, it had to unnerve, it had to bring fear, it had to… Tradition, tradition, tradition kept rolling around in Sasha’s head. A slow creeping mist was useless. Beautiful to watch but utterly useless.
Sasha drew a deep breath and focused. Maybe today…?
In the workshop of Trotex Engineering, Brackenfell Industria:
Excuse me. Could you stop a minute Sir? Are you Anton Cilliers?
Well ja, maybe. Who’s asking?
I’m John Miller, an investigative reporter from the Sun. It’s great to shake the hand of the guy who took the first picture of the visitors.
Is that a fact?
Doctor Paul Pienaar said that you took this photograph yesterday.
The only thing Paul is a doctor of, is bullshit.
Well he is a character; the good doctor said that this photo heralds the coming of a new age.
So you know he works at a panel shop in Salt River?
With a PhD in particle physics? This depression. Let’s sit in this office and talk.
That’s my boss’s office.
So we can’t sit there.
No problem, just tell your story quickly and I won’t waste any of your time.
Too late. Okay, I was out yesterday just after dawn up by signal hill; it was lekker misty and as I run down I see this weird disk in the mist – like a giant washer you know; my meisie always asks what happened on my jog so I take a picture with my phone – something to talk about over coffee.
And that’s how you photographed the first alien spacecraft to visit Cape Town.
Actually, I thought it was a reflection off a roof.
So only over coffee did you recognise its importance and sent it to Dr Pienaar?
Ja, my girl knew that oke from college, she said he was into this stuff, so I sent it to him, these new phones … got email and everything.
How did you feel about the historic moment?
You know, I can’t tell if you’re plain stupid or, how do they say, disingenious – just messing with me. But your time is up buddy; voetsak!
Four hours later, a telephone call:
Hi, I’m Anton, we met this morning.
Oh, the chap with the UFO picture.
Yeah. Well, I was talking to this guy at work, he says people like you sometimes pay bucks for photos.
Well yes, we do reimburse people for the time and effort. I know a guy in talk radio who might do an interview.
And they pay too? Well my bru, I think I saw visitors from another world during my run yesterday – and I only just realised its significance.
My chosen picture:
As threatened, it’s a Max Barners. Since I am devoid of imagination to a truly horrific extent at the moment, let’s stick with 300 words (i.e. 250-350). The theme runs from Monday 16th to Sunday 29th May.
I apologise very humbly for the extremely late posting. It’s been a hideous week, but it’s no excuse.
Greg stared at the photographs. They were not what he had been expecting. Quite the opposite in fact. They were a series of cats in various positions with money thrown on or around them. He took a closer look at the one currently in hand. It was of a black cat lying on a rather comfortable looking bed. Large notes scattered around. Though the cat did look like it was about to attack the money. The bed was a step in the right direction. And maybe the money but the cats? Greg chewed on his lip as he worked his way through the series of photographs. Cute little cats to be sure but still cats.
He looked up at his photographer, his features becoming mildly amused.
“Well,” he started, and then shuffled through a few photographs as he tried to remember the man’s name. “David, these…”
“I tried to interpret what you said as best I could,” said David eagerly. “My teacher said I had a unique way of viewing themes.”
“Yes,” said Greg slowly, again shuffling through the photographs.
“And the advert in the paper said photographer for unique magazine,” continued David.
“Yes, it did,” agreed Greg. But he had had something else in mind when he used the word ‘unique’.
“Did you speak to Sam like I said?” asked Greg finally putting aside the photographs.
“Oh, yes,” said David leaning forward in his chair. “He was very helpful, he gave me many tips about lighting and shadows. He suggested the cats.”
“Did he…” Greg was quite sure Sam hadn’t said the word ‘cats’. He was quite sure Sam had used something cruder.
“Yeah,” grinned David. “Otherwise I would have been quite lost with a theme of ‘money shot’.”
His name is Jerry and hers is Christine. Every Thursday they book a table although they never ask for a particular one; for the last few weeks I’ve made sure that Cassiel seats them on the balcony.
They arrive around 7pm and watch the sunset. But something is different tonight: Jerry is tense, from what I cannot tell. Christine seems her usual self and smiles at the waiter, asks for water and a glass of the house white. Jerry mumbles for the red; his fingers tap staccato on the table; he stares out across the town, across the city lights below us.
I send Cassiel over to deliver their drinks. Cassiel is amused at my interest — and then humours me. She brings two bottles of wine and uncorks it in front of them, pours each the drink of their choice. I understand that having the owner do this is a compliment, in this case more for me than for them.
But they don’t notice.
Jerry is imagining a man’s face, cleanly shaven, thin, with a well-defined jawline and high cheeks, full eyebrows, no lips. It’s a beautiful face, except for the lips.
Starters are deep-fried corn cakes with plum sauce. He orders more wine, a whole bottle. Next, a butternut soup with coconut milk instead of cream, garnished with cilantro; and then the orange-glazed duck and the roast rosemary potatoes. He chews the corn cakes, barely tasting them; the soup he almost drinks and he ignores the bread; he tears more than cuts, packs into his mouth more than eats. Christine has picked up on his tension; she no longer dips bread into her soup and spoons it up instead. She’s eager to finish, to leave. She stares at the table.
I nudge Fluffy — with some work I can make her understand that I want her to visit their table, but Jerry kicks at her while she twines between his chair legs. Her pain is small, but her anger and fear intense.
She hides herself in the rafters where I let her be. Her anger towards me will pass. When my attention returns to Jerry and Christine they have already left, leaving money scattered on the table.
I wonder if they will return. Cassiel shakes her head and tells me no.