I have a very clear memory of daddy outlined by the doorframe with the light behind. And then him throwing you up in the air and you falling. (Ghilraen, sister)
I’m almost sure I wasn’t there. But I remember hearing the story of how he threw you up and you flung yourself back and he wasn’t able to catch you properly. You were wearing something slippery. (Chaldaea, sister)
He threw you up and you twisted and the next thing you just dropped on the floor. Your dad went white, pale as a ghost. (Justine, sisters’ friend)
I remember it happening behind my back. I didn’t see it, but I was in the vicinity of pops while he was tossing you up and down. And that’s when the whole thing happened. The next memory I have is of him holding you tight and walking around comforting you. Everything after that is vague. (Alhyrian, brother)
We were going somewhere. We were going somewhere and I was getting dressed in the bedroom and Hugh was doing his thing of throwing you up to the roof and – ah, Kharys. I remember hearing this crack like a coconut. It sent shivers down my spine. It paralysed me. I thought, “What? What?” There was that crack, then this dreadful dreadful silence, then screaming. You weren’t unconscious, but you had slowed down. Your eyes weren’t normal. Oh, very frightening. So there was a little blackout in your mind. [Long silence] You know, that was something fucking awful. (Cheryl, mother)
When I was two years old, I fell through my father’s hands and fractured my skull against a parquet floor. The injury to my head was the worst of a catalogue of injuries I suffered as a child. Later, throughout my girlhood and teens, I would retell this story. My dad dropped me on my head when I was a baby. And I was proud of this story. I wanted to give, and this tale of a father and a baby and a broken head was the best offering I had.
Catalogue of Injuries:
- Skull fracture from fall. Night in hospital.
- Stomach pumped after ingesting poisonous mushroom. Hallucinations.
- Tongue bitten through on right side. Recut at hospital and sewn together.
- Ankle slit by broken miniature teacup in bath. Seven stitches.
- Hand slashed on broken window. Stitches to pinkie finger and thumb.
- Thigh pierced by Leatherman. Plasters.
- Knee opened by stone on slippery-slide. Bandaged.
- Chin gashed on rocks. Plasters.
- Achilles heel torn. Thrown by horse and foot caught in stirrup. Crutches.
As if my body were a piece of paper and the world had written all these interesting things on it for me to speak of.
I recite the Catalogue of Injuries to my mother. “Oh Kharys,” she says, “you were an awful child.” Then she laughs. “Make sure you mention you were born at home,” she says.
Recently, I’ve begun wondering whether my difficulty with words comes from that fall. It seems that with speech I am always looking for, and unable to find, the right words. My tongue is slow, stretching. I once asked my mother, “What’s that vegetable called, the one that’s green and shaped like a pear?” This anecdote, like the story of how I was dropped on my head, became mythologised, retold again and again. At the end, when my mother reveals the word I was looking for, everyone laughs, including me. But it is also unsettling. Finding words – finding the right words at the right time – is often difficult for me. I will say, “Where is the weigher?” because “scale” has disappeared from my vocabulary. Or I will stop midway through a sentence, realising I am out of words. It is terrifying, especially when I hit a blank midway through a story. Then it’s like falling. Then it’s like hitting concrete, that clean blank break of contact.
There is a word for it: dysnomia. The condition is characterised by a difficulty with retrieving words from memory, so that an individual may be able to describe the object but cannot provide its name. Dysnomia is a milder form of anomia (impaired recall of words) and a symptom of aphasia (impairment of language). Aphasia is always caused by an injury to the brain. Strokes, head trauma, brain tumors, infections. How a patient described his aphasia: “I know it but I just can’t sentence it.”
Why do I write? To gather language. To locate every word that wasn’t there during speech. To sentence it.
But this is not a self-diagnostic essay. I am not arguing that I have aphasia nor even a mild form of dysnomia. In Bluets, a love poem to the colour blue, Maggie Nelson asks, “Why bother with diagnosis at all, if it is but a restatement of the problem?” I share this sentiment. Imagine, rather, that I have sometimes fallen between words. Imagine that these spaces are very much like those the aphasic speaker inhabits. Imagine that this feels, in a way, like asphyxia.
When I asked about the green vegetable shaped like a pear, I meant “avo.” I was in the gap where “avo” should have been.
Dysnomia is also known as the Tip-of-the-Tongue phenomenon (TOT). I feel I know a word – sense it to be close at hand and on the tip of my tongue – but fail to retrieve it.
I admit that I speak inelegantly. I feel as if, because I write or because I am pursuing writing, I should speak better.
In Aphasia Inside Out, a collection of essays and conversations on the condition, there is a moving discussion between Maria Black, a linguist, and Chris Ireland, a poet grappling with aphasia. Black compares the “linguistic limbo” of transitioning between languages to aphasia. Speaking of her experience of shifting from a language she knew to a language she was learning, she says, “[People] would finish my sentences if I groped for the right words, usually assuming the thoughts I was trying to convey were simpler and more basic than what I had in mind – something akin to the experience of aphasia.” Ireland is familiar with the experience. “People don’t have time for deep listening,” he agrees. “Sometimes I foreign in my own language.”
I, too, spend so long over sentences that people have taken to completing them for me. I’m trying to teach them to let me finish. I don’t want to leave the world littered with inaccurate sentences, words not even my own.
Yet another descriptor for wordloss: presque vu, meaning “almost seen.” This is distinct from jamais vu, “never seen,” and deja vu, “already seen.” Black describes the sensation in terms of slippage: “I would find myself losing the sense of what the thought was, it would blur and slip through my mind’s fingers as if it had not been quite there.” French, it appears, is particularly suited to describing the diversity of ways in which the world deceives us. As if it had not been quite there.
“There is a meaning in my head,” says Ireland. “I want it but I don’t know what it is. The only way is translating it through the pen.”
The term presque vu is striking. As if words were potential objects I could see and pick up and hold in my hands. In her essay “Puente / Brücke / Bridge,” Maria Dimópulos conceives of words as coins. He lives in languages, collects words like coins in his pockets, handing out the right one to the right person. This is how the foreigner navigates his or her way through a new tongue.
Words as coins. Language as currency.
In one sense, I’m trying to write myself back into language. I’m trying to pick up words with a pen.
But, of course, words are not objects. There is no analysis capable of making language crystal clear and arraying it before us as if it were an object. Merleau-Ponty said this decades ago.
Chris Ireland craves conversations that hold. “I seek people to hold information for me,” he says. “Not like advocate, but to hold me in a conversation. Rooted feeling, with space and quietness. Got time to unpacking it out. Sift through thoughts softly.” The idea resonates with me. An ideal conversation, with reciprocal attention and response, is surely a form of holding.
I am most at ease in language when I am skin-to-skin with another human being. To lie against the body of a person and speak is perhaps the greatest pleasure I know.
I could interrogate the sensuality of this pleasure. I could mention the men and women I’ve been with, for instance. I could speculate on my refusal to commit. I could conclude that my distaste for marriage has less to do with patriarchy and more to do with a reluctance to cut myself off from the intimacy of other people.
Or I could confess that I am in love with the human body. Its taut muscle, its warm curves of flesh.
I have always taken pleasure in holding and being held. As a child, I bombarded my family with affection. I hugged often, with my arms and legs, and kissed everyone’s faces, ten kisses in a row. I was always climbing onto people’s laps or sliding between my parents or nestling down into the deep warmth of my mother’s body. I wanted physicality. I wanted hands and arms and legs and mouths. This was acceptable in a child, but as I grew older my family began to joke. “Kharys needs a boyfriend,” they’d say. They were probably right. Even animals have grown wary of my affection.
Donald Winnicott coined the term “holding” to describe the external conditions, provided by primary caregivers, for an infant’s healthy development. The term refers not only to physical holding, but to the total environment in which a child develops. “Holding,” says Winnicott, “protects from physiological insult. Takes account of the infant’s skin sensitivity – touch, temperature, visual sensitivity, sensitivity to falling.” This theory of the infant-parent relationship makes beautiful sense to me. I am convinced, but I am also disturbed by what it means for my father.
The Argument: Holding protects an infant from physiological insult. Dropping an infant is a physiological insult. My father dropped me. Therefore, my father did not hold me well enough.
An absurd argument, and yet I keep coming back to it. What will people think of my father? My mother has a similar concern. “I hope you explain what happened,” she says. “You know, not just that Hugh dropped you on your head. It sounds so brutal.”
The Materia Medica, a homeopathic guide to ailments and their remedies, is a compilation of sick and suffering bodies. My mother has always kept a copy of the book on her bedside table. It is a hardcover, bound in black textured fabric, the title embossed in gold. For every illness or emotional hardship in the family, she consults its pages. She opens the book on her lap and reads out an assortment of symptoms, each of which we must then confirm or dismiss until she arrives at a remedy. “Strangulated feeling?” No. “Dry cough in evening and at night?” Yes. “Must sit up in bed to get relief?” Yes. “Urine emitted with cough?” No. “Pressure upon chest and soreness?” A little bit. “Smothering sensation on lying down?” Sort of. “Bad smells, as of old catarrh?” What’s catarrh? “Mucous.” What does mucous smell like? “Very bad, I suppose. But just listen to this one. Do you have any large green fetid scales in the nose?” And we laugh and laugh. Then my mother puts the Materia Medica aside and rises. “It sounds like a Pulsatilla cough,” she says.
For the first few years of a child’s life, argues Winnicott, a mother identifies so deeply with her child that it is almost as if she knows what the baby feels. I didn’t know what the crack was, but I had an incredible connection with it. This is how my mother describes the sound of my fall.
After a shock to the mind or body, my mother will prescribe Arnica. She’ll pour the tiny white pills into the bottle’s cap and say “under the tongue” and shake them out onto the lingual frenulum. The act of opening my mouth and lifting my tongue for homeopathic medicine is as ingrained as my name is. Even as an infant I knew the drill. All I had to do was give you a tap on the lip and you’d give me a little bird mouth. Once, after prescribing Arnica for a minor car-crash my brother and I were involved in, my mother said, “Your father couldn’t sleep for weeks after he dropped you on your head. He was having the most terrible nightmares, but then I gave him Arnica and they went. The Arnica took them.”
That there is no scientific proof for homeopathy is not the point of this essay, either.
After my head injury, both my father and I went onto Arnica. He was given Arnica 2000, the highest potency there is, for bruising of the mind (traumatism of grief, remorse). I was given Arnica 200, a lower potency, for bruising of the brain (injuries, falls, blows, contusions). I went around with a black eye while my father dreamt black dreams.
Symptoms of the Arnica Patient: Says there is nothing the matter with him. Agoraphobia (fear of space). Hot head with cold body. Fetid breath. Bitter taste as from bad eggs. Longing for vinegar. Feeling as if stomach were passing against spine. Dreams of death, mutilated bodies, anxious and terrible. Horrors in the night. Stitches in the heart.
What were my father’s nightmares made of? Of falling, I imagine. Of motion slowed down and impending impact. Of a child dropping heavily through air and himself hampered, unable to intercede in time. In these dreams, he is always clumsy and impotent, an onlooker to what is about to happen, must happen. It happens. Collision of bone against wood, a hard fruit snapping open.
I remember the visceralness of you hitting the ground. It was a very unfamiliar noise. I felt the shock of it in my feet. (Alhyrian)
My father endures. Says there is nothing the matter with him. But, finally, the other dream is too much. In the other dream, the child remains unconscious. He holds her and speaks to her but her face is closed and she will not wake up. He lifts her. She is all body, weighted hands and feet. Her face has turned to stone.
My father surfaces in the dark, stitches in his heart. He remembers that I am conscious. I am making a full recovery. I show no signs of brain damage or delay. I am healing.
With this sort of nonfiction writing, I must constantly stop and ask myself, Have you gone too far? Are you saying too much? What does what you are writing mean for those you are writing about? As with my fictional characters, I want to do right by the people in this essay. Doing right means finding words. Words for laughter and grief, hunger and fear. Words for their lives, and for their deaths, as well.
Eccentric and irresponsible. This is what I imagine people will think of my father.
A few years before my father’s death, he sent me and my oldest sister an email. In it, he confessed that he had been high when he dropped me. Was it a joint or LSD? I can’t remember now. If I typed his address into my Gmail search bar, I would find the email. I would be able to reproduce it here, word for word, and it would be the true story. But I choose not to go there. I can’t remember responding to this email and, for now, I’m not sure I can manage that truth. I’m afraid it will bring me to my knees.
Ulric Neisser, in his book Cognitive Psychology, advances an alternative theory of memory. Arguing against the Reappearance Hypothesis, which conceived of memories as retrievable copies of sensory experience, Neisser proposed what he called the Utilisation Hypothesis. “The traces [of memories] are not simply ‘revived’ or ‘reactivated’ in recall,” he argued. “Instead, the stored fragments are used as information to support a new construction.” In thinking about memory, he proposed the analogy of a paleontologist reconstructing a dinosaur from a handful of bone chips. “It is as if the bone fragments used by the paleontologist did not appear in the model he builds at all. As indeed they need not, if it is to represent a fully fleshed-out, skin-covered dinosaur.”
Memory, in other words, is a reconstructed construction. I am undertaking a similar project with these written chips.
I remember pops holding you and rocking you. (Alhyrian)
The medical staff questioned both your parents about possible child abuse. That’s standard procedure when a small child comes in with injuries. But shame, your dad – to be asked those questions and have to recount all the details of what happened. I think it was hugely traumatic for him. (Justine)
I’m now having this memory of standing with mom outside a room in Sandton clinic. I remember the doctor saying you had a fracture but you were lucky. It was just off your temple and it would have been worse at your temple. We were worried about brain damage. (Ghilraen)
My mother doesn’t mention any of this. She skips straight to the end.
I remember sitting in a chair by the hospital bed dozing on and off. At some point in the night, you woke up. Quite chirpy, like nothing had happened. You looked around and said, “This isn’t my room.” And I said, “No, definitely not.” “Oh,” you said. Then you asked a barrage of questions. You were quite fine. In the morning the doctor came and you were allowed to go home.
My mother has never heard such a perfect sentence in all her life. This isn’t my room. She wants to take it from my lips and hold it like a bird.
My early writing reminds me of my childhood drawings. In these pictures, people’s arms sprout from their heads.
When I was sixteen or seventeen, I wrote a short story about a father who drops his daughter on her head. There is screaming and shouting and death (the daughter’s). I don’t know why I wrote this story. Perhaps I needed to reimagine an event that had always been at the center of my life, and during the angst of my teenage years the only stories worth writing seemed to be the tragic ones. No longer satisfied by drama, I wanted Shakespearian tragedy. It is a testament to my self-involved naivete that I thought this story would be a good gift for my father. The day before his birthday, I showed it to my mother. “It’s well written,” she said, “but I think he’d find it quite difficult to read.”
And so it dawned on me that a story can mean different things to different people. I did not give it to him for his birthday.
“When I was twenty-one,” says Jenny Boully, “I made a pact with myself: my writing should always be sincere.” Much of my early work is insincere. I rely on adverbs, overblown emotion, archaic language. I write countenance instead of “face,” unquenched tumescence instead of “erection.” As if this isn’t bad enough, I address the reader directly. “Dear reader,” says one narrator, “if you will permit, let us pause and back-peddle a few years.” Of course, I wasn’t trying to be insincere. I just didn’t know what I was doing.
If there were a part of speech that symbolised insincerity, I’d say it was the adverb.
But what if I were to write with surrender? What if I were to let sentences happen instead of holding them down like kicking bodies?
The Materia Medica is also a book of poetry. I have sat for hours over its sentences, moved as I have been moved by art.
Teeth seem too long. Sensation as if a drop of urine were rolling continuously along the channel. Larynx feels as if a foreign body were in it. Coldness at the edge of the teeth. Sounds re-echo in ears. Tongue clean, red, wet, with center furrow. Stitches flying to the ear on swallowing. Eyes red and raw, feel drawn backward. Sensation as if something grasped heart.
These words give me joy. Even as a child I was struck by their strange and uneasy beauty. I want this for my own writing.
The poetry is the most containing of all the things I’ve done. (Chris Ireland)
A week after my fall, my sister took a photo of me. It is a side-on shot, my face in profile. I am naked and parting a thatch of grey grass that rises above my head. My gaze is fixed on something outside the frame. My left cheek is flushed. In my right hand I hold an unbitten red apple. To an outsider, there is nothing unusual about the photo. But what gives it such power is that half my face, the obscured half, is bruised black.
I have a very strong memory of your black eye. It was crazily black and crazily big. And I remember thinking you were brave because you went around like normal with this massive black eye you couldn’t even see out of. You were quite upbeat about it. (Alhyrian)
I ask my mother how long my eye was bruised for. “A month, two months,” she says. “It was pitch black, then blue, then grey-blue, then green, then yellow.” It pleases me that my face holds so many colours.
I wonder if my sister orchestrated the photo. Placed the apple in my hand. Stood me in the grass. Positioned my bruised face away from the camera.
It’s been almost thirty years since I fell. My father’s bones are in Port Elizabeth. They lie in a large wooden box under a shrine he built with his own hands. A white porcelain Buddha the size of a toddler sits crosslegged above the box. He is surrounded by a Buddhist prayer bell, a dorje, a Tibetan prayer wheel. Along the mantelpiece are photographs of Akong Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa, the 17th Karmapa as a child. Also: a small circular incense holder crafted out of wood. Its central aperture once held a grey flower.
What if I were to write of the flower that came out of the crematorium chamber, along with my father’s bones? Grey and charred, but whole. There must be a scientific explanation for how it survived the heat, but I prefer to think it a miracle.
I understand that, to be true to my father, I must go back. I must find the email and put myself in it, again.
In 2005, Mike Brown and his team detected a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt. The discovery launched the International Astronomical Union into disarray and ultimately resulted in the reclassification of Pluto. The dwarf planet, named Eris after the Greek goddess of strife, has one known moon: Dysnomia. In Greek mythology, Dysnomia is Eris’s daughter. She is also the spirit of lawlessness.
This is all as it should be. I have felt the lawlessness of wordloss. I know Dysnomia. I know the slopes of her cold pale light.
In my Honours year at university, I walked out of my first ever tutorial because I found myself between words. I stood up, calmly told my students I was going to fetch something, and left the room. That, too, was a kind of falling.
Later, I would use the word “drowning.” Couldn’t breath, couldn’t speak. Felt as if I had been dragged underwater.
I have been thinking about how my mother’s body once held me and my three siblings. According to Winnicott, the physical holding of the fetus in the womb initiates the more complex infant-parent relationship of holding – that is, the environmental provision after birth. “The woman begins to alter her orientation and to be concerned with the changes that are taking place within her,” says Winnicott. “[She] shifts some of her sense of self onto the baby.” Our dates of birth: 1974, 1976, 1985, 1990.
In the photo, I am no longer the child my mother gave birth to. My skull is cracked, the bone still healing. I am already damaged by the world and its surfaces. In fact, I knew the violence of falling long before my father dropped me. Already as a fetus I knew it.
You must have been about three months in utero. I was coming down the stairs alongside Randburg shopping center and it was rainy and wet and my pumps were worn. I was in a hurry and slipped. It was a helluva bad fall. I hit my coccyx and the back of my head and whacked a whole lot of things out of position. I could hardly get out of bed. I had about twenty sessions with an osteopath. (Cheryl)
A week passed, then two. The fetus held. When the danger of miscarriage had passed, the osteopath told my mother she was going to have a girl. He pointed to my stomach and said, “No need to worry anymore, it’s a female.” And I said, “Oh?” and he said, “Yes, if it had been male it would have come out by now. Males don’t cope with stress on the body.”The osteopath had a fifty percent chance of being right. Would my mother have told this story if I had been male?
I thought the idea was an old wives’ tale. How could a fetus’s sex affect the strength of holding? But, if it were true, did females have a similar strength outside the womb, as well?
My mother assures me it is true. “Look it up,” she says, “it’s been scientifically proven.” And it has, according to an article with the extravagant title “Survival of the Fetus: Why Males Have it So Rough.” Researchers have found that, under physical or emotional stress, women are more likely to miscarry a male fetus. The male is, in fact, weaker. The author of another article (this one titled “The Fragile Male”) reflects: “A typical attitude to boys is that they are, or must be made, more resilient than girls. This adds social insult to biological injury.”
There’s a second photo. It’s head-on, close-up. My nose snoutish, my cheeks plump, my mouth turned at the corners. Nothing is hidden. There’s the black eye, the yellow bruise on my forehead. I look sombre and thoughtful, as if drowsy. It is not the kind of photo I want for this essay.
Because I am female, I survived. I don’t know what to do with this formulation.
I have no talent for languages. I forget vocabulary and botch grammar. My pronunciation, I’m told, is terrible. At school, I struggled with Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans. Then, in Korea, I struggled with Hangul. I spent two years in a foreign country and came home with a handful of broken phrases. This fact is a source of shame to me.
But to enter a language is not like entering a room. One cannot simply walk in and sit down. (Maria Dimópulos)
I began studying Hangul soon after arriving in Korea. I bought myself beginner exercise books and downloaded language-learning apps. I researched classes in my area and watched demonstrations on YouTube. Then I began to make excuses. No classes in Suncheon, don’t have enough time in the day, need to prioritise academic and creative work. And so it is true I didn’t try hard enough. I was lazy. But there was more to it than that. How could I explain that even in my own language I did not feel proficient? That I often had to pause for the right word and often couldn’t find it? That, not feeling at ease in a first language, I could not face a second?
Perhaps this is all just another excuse. But the fact remains: I am not at home in language, not even English. Sometimes I foreign in my own language. In these situations, I’ll either describe the word I’m looking for, or I’ll fumble for it, or I’ll submit to a lesser word. Or I’ll just go silent. I’ll fall.
Think of lowering your face into a blank. Think of the drop to the stomach, the descent.
What unsettles me about the second photo is my expression. It is wide open. It is like a gulf you could walk into and get lost in. A child’s face should not look like this.
I spend more than an hour reading through emails from my father. I remember receiving the email while I was still in my first Korean apartment, and so I focus on the period between October 2016 (when I left South Africa) and March 2017 (when I moved to my second Korean flat). There are dozens of emails, but none of them mentions my fall.
The burnt flower stood in the wooden incense-holder for months. It was there throughout the forty-nine nights we sang the Chenrezig mantra after my father’s death. And then one day I came into the shrine room and it was not there anymore.
A friend tells me about her first memory. She is two weeks old and lying on a stainless steel table. Masked doctors stand over her, preparing to operate, and she cries because she has no words to speak with. I do not have this kind of memory. I’ve already established that mine is unreliable. Indeed, my poor memory is at the heart of this essay.
For years I believed my first memory to be the moment I woke up in hospital and said, “This isn’t my room.” I remember metal sequins of light along the guardrails. I remember blue shadow on the floor. I remember light in the window and the whiteness of everything. But now I’m not so sure. Now I’m open to the possibility these images were put there by other people.
Again, I sit poring over emails. I read past March 2017 and right to the end of November 2018, when I left Korea. Still nothing. I sit back and think. Is it possible I imagined the email?
The burnt flower must have crumbled or been blown to dust.
I never went back to that particular tutorial class. I signed up for tutoring the following year, though, and tutored for the next two years. Then, as if to ensure the horror of that first tutorial was behind me, I spent another two years teaching English in Korea. Yet, these moments of forgetfulness are not necessarily linked to stage fright or social anxiety or glossophobia. It is just that sometimes, without warning, I fall into schisms in language. I find myself between words, which is to say, without the words I need. All around me is underwater silence.
Imagine Friday in Foe, submerged and tongueless. But this is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused. His words, too, are bubbles of silence.
What if I could teach myself to yield to this space? To breathe the watery silence, to settle in.
In the repertory section of the Materia Medica, my mother has penciled K next to this symptom of the mind: “Fretful, so that the child wants different things, but continually rejects them.” At the age of six, I went through a period that became known as “Kharys’s yes-no phase.” My mother would have made the note around 1996 or 1997, soon after a six-week trip through Egypt, Israel, and Jordan with my oldest sister. When she got back, the story goes, I was impossible. If my mood was destabilised in any way, I would get into a yes-no tantrum. “Do you want a kiss goodnight,” my mother would ask. “No,” I’d say, and duck my head under the covers. Then, just as she was about to walk out the door, I’d scream, “I do want a kiss! I do want a kiss!” My mother would come back and again I’d duck under the covers. “No!” I’d shout. This would go on until my mother walked out the door. Then I’d scream and scream. I’d feel as if I had torn something soft inside myself.
I remember the yes-no feeling clearly. It felt very much like worrying a loose milktooth or scratching an inflamed itchy bite. Painful, but also somehow satisfying.
For the child who wants different things but petulantly rejects them, the Materia Medica prescribes Gelsemium. I imagine my mother reading the symptoms, “Desire to be quiet, to be left alone. Delirious on falling to sleep. Bad effects from fright, fear, exciting news. Stage fright.” Then she comes to the final line and it takes her breath: “Child starts and grasps the nurse and screams, as if afraid of falling.”
Did she read this line and remember? Did she recognise my fractured skull in my yes-no phase? Child starts and grasps the nurse and screams, as if afraid of falling. She reads the line very slowly, touching each word.
There are other indicators marked with initials in the repertory section. The initials are someone else’s, but I feel as if the symptoms belong to me. “Cannot remember right words (amnesic aphasia, paraphasia),” and then, further down, “Thoughts vanish while talking.” In the Materia Medica I brought with me to Cape Town, the same symptoms have been underlined in pen, though without anyone’s initials.
I open my mouth. Words rise from the tip of my tongue, weightless as seeds.
In the Gmail search bar, I type my father’s email address followed by the phrase “dropped on head.” An email comes up with the subject line “On Waking Up.” It is dated Sunday, 3 May, 2015.
I don’t know how I got the dates so wrong. In May 2015 I was living in Grahamstown. I had no wifi, and so I would have read the email in the library or at home on my phone. But the memory of Korea won’t go. I am sitting crosslegged on my single bed in a twenty-storey block of flats. The room still smells of the teacher who lived there before me. Someone slams a cupboard in the apartment above. I open the email and read.
Dear Kharys and Ghilraen, I feel deep gratitude that you (the heart you) chose to incarnate through Cheryl and me. Akong Rinpoche’s advice to me, the last time I saw him, was that family comes first and that is a responsibility I hold dearly. My primary drive to get married was a deep desire to have children and I feel deeply blessed by that fulfillment. I have two regrets that, if it were possible, I would undo. [...] The other was the dropped catch with you, Kharys, and cracking your head on the floor. There’s no excuse for that lack of mindfulness. I’d had a joint, was elated (high), and threw her higher than was wise even under “sober” circumstances. Motor reflexes are slowed with that substance. Another break of trust. Those wounds, dearest daughters, are the deepest ones and will be the most challenging “shadows” (inner demons) in your lives.
When my oldest sister speaks of my fall, she slips from a second to third person perspective. I don’t think you were unconscious. At least, I don’t remember them taking a limp Kharys to the car. My father does the same in his email. I’d had a joint, was elated (high), and threw her higher than was wise even under “sober” circumstances. I, too, feel as if the story happened to someone else. Not I or you, but she and her.
And yet my skull must bear the mark of that fall. Somehow, somewhere.
Thank you for all that you two (oldest and youngest) have taught me. You and your siblings, and of course Cheryl.
Perhaps it is because I never blamed my father that I could not forgive him. To have done so would have acknowledged fault. Instead, I was angry. I did not reply to the email.
Once, my father spent a whole afternoon telling a story while he pushed me on the yellow swing in the garden. I am flying over a city. Far below I can see buildings and the gleam of a lake and little insect people. Splodge Sparrow is beside me. Splodge Sparrow is the alter ego of the Porridge Eater, a character with whom my siblings and I went on many adventures. I glide through the air. I pass a stork holding an infant in a sling, I excavate crystals from a ray of sunlight, I picnic on clouds of marshmallows. Then I must come down. I lose my ability for flight and begin to fall. I fall and fall. Splodge Sparrow shoots off and calls his friends. “Kharys is falling!” he cries. “We must do something!” The sparrows consult while I continue to fall. I am nearing the buildings. I am nearing the insect people, the ground. The insect people stop in the streets and watch me fall. At the very last moment, just before I hit concrete, the sparrows arrive with a net. They hold the net in their beaks and flap madly as I land in it. I am saved. “Again!” I shout to my father.
Things I Thank My Father For: Stories. The Porridge Eater, Splodge Sparrow, Plankman. Painted Easter eggs. Holding me out to pee on the side of the road. The huge warmth of his body. Every handmade birthday card. Its drawing and its poem. Reading us Lord of the Rings in bed on Saturdays. Hugs and kisses. The rope-swing over the driveway. The foefie-slide in the back garden. The handbuilt treehouse. Clown faces. Juggling oranges, stones, flames. The nativity scene in the fireplace at Christmastime. Laughter. Saying yes: be a game-ranger, be an anti-poacher, be a marine biologist, be an animal-rights activist, be an academic. Be a writer. Being there.
When I think of my father, I think of a man in awe of life.
How mysterious, how wonderful, how marvelous to be alive! On the veranda, 11:27 am. Birds twittering, children’s voices playing in the distance, a slight breeze (not too hot and not too cold – Goldilocks- porridge warm). And Mr Porridge Eater’s alter ego (one of them) dancing on the table in front of me.
I have started thinking of words as flowers that have survived very high temperatures. Fragile and miraculous things. Impossible structures, unreliable. I look for them and they’re not there.
But cannot the in-between space itself offer a kind of holding? Rooted feeling, with space and quietness.
About the Author:
Kharys Ateh Laue is a South African writer, editor, and researcher. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Pleiades Magazine, Jalada Africa, Cleaver Magazine, and other literary journals. In 2017 her short story “Plums” was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. Her academic work, which explores the depiction of race, gender, and animals in South African fiction, has been published in English Studies in Africa, Scrutiny2, and Journal of Literary Studies. She is currently an MA student in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town and the nonfiction co-editor of Hotazel Review.
Featured image by Oliver Hihn/Unsplash