The Circle of Life
Dinner at Bertoli’s with mother was extremely tense. Waves of relief, sweet as Angel’s kisses, flow through me. It’s over. I’m uncurling. For once, I, Sybrand, (known as Zaybee), her only son, baffled and befuddled her.
After these alien encounters I usually feel limp as left over lettuce on a warm plate; tonight I’m in the zone – sparkling.
Tonight wasn’t about my image – my thatchwork of thick black hair in a wild disarray of dreadlocks, artfully streaked with blonde, our “sordid squat”, or graduating, from that “den of iniquity,” the Conservatoire.
Tonight’s focus was the box, sealed with drops of scarlet wax, which she discharged from the Gucci like a poisonous snake, and dumped on the damask, before she upped and left, a silent scream of rage driving off in a whisper of black Merc.
The box – my long-awaited legacy from Grandmother Amelie, terrifies her, but I resisted the manipulative manoevres and refused to surrender it.
With a triumphant fist pump, I place it gently in my noisy yellow beetle and drive home, fevered with anticipation.
Solitude’s essential, and our household’s partying, so I slip silently through my window. I light several candles in my sacred space, place the box on the rough-hewn saligna altar between the silver and amber necklaces, and light a bunch of incense.
I exchange tight black Levi’s for taichi pants, and drop onto the cushion. Sitting straight-backed, with one hand cupping Amelie’s photo, I wait for midnight. My mind blows away into the haze of sandalwood; memories flood into my out-of-control psyche …
… Spending childhood with grandparents; a rainbow nation lifestyle, where red wine often flowed deep into the night.
… discovering that Tomas was not my father’s father. Who was? Who was my father?
… Times and spaces with Amelie; she always carried journals to diarise with experiences, sketches and poetry.
… Climbing down to our special place, a rocky amphitheatre, its black floor worn smooth by ceaselessly moving waves. Slipping on the wet rocks. A mountainous wave dragging me out to sea, tossing me like driftwood, groping, gasping, choking, hitting my head against a rock. Oblivion. Faces gathering around, pushing me back with hands and voices, …black faces … as my heart was thumped and my lungs pumped until, sobbing, in searing agony I was born anew.
… Tomas’s superb craftmanship – my first quarter-sized cello; beginning a passionate love affair with her first outrageously painful squawk.
Other memories, starkly contrasting.
… Infrequent trips to visit mother. A stiff Pretoria mansion, chilled with good manners and readings from Die Bybel.
… Overhearing Ouma’s never-to-be-forgotten remark; “just as well his hair grows thick and long and curls in ringlets, like Amelie’s. Never cut it short. A dark complexion like his, with short black curls!” And, twisting her mouth imperiously, “we can’t allow that.”
… My immaculate mother, role-playing the perfect wife to my stepfather – military top-brass, remote and only passionate when lecturing on God-given White Afrikaner supremacy. “ Rooineks work for Satan; Swartes are ignorant savages.”
… Amelie giving English literacy classes in Kyalitcha. She cherishes works of black African poets and philosophers, and sings African songs. I experience Ubuntu, and learn Xhosa. I prefer Satan.
… Questions about my real father slam back like heavy doors, always bolted shut.
… Amelie, ashen-faced, wiping tears away. “Your father died. Shh, I promise I will tell you one day.”
… Amelie dying before she could exorcise the spooks in their shadowy haunts spinning riddles around me.
Midnight chimes. I take my inheritance into my tousled bed- my comfort zone. The adrenaline’s back, big time; the plot’s about to unravel!
I switch on the light, cut the strings and open the box, and, aahh, what a bonus! Amelie’s journals from before her marriage to her last days!
The first book, fragile with age, falls open; a wedding photo from Mali appears before my startled eyes. Amelie, wearing a long, embroidered skirt, raven black ringlets falling below her waist, bare breasted and adorned with ornate silver and amber necklaces, taking marriage vows with a tall black man wearing a white kaftan; Djorge, poet, philosopher and musician. Exactly me!
How would that look on the mantle-shelf in Pretoria in the family portrait gallery?
They have a son, Raphael. My father!
Tribal Africa’s too harsh; she returns to Paris. Djorge is killed in a coup.
She marries Tomas, a professor of music who makes instruments.
Raphael at 22 is a brilliant musician. The photo lingers trembling in my fingers; a sensitive face with sharp planes and deep hawk-eyes; he wears my face, with a ponytail.
My mother meets him, jamming in a Left Bank Café. They fall in love. She’s 19; her mother absolutely vetoes the match and drags her home.
Enter me, as an unwanted pregnancy into a straightlaced Afrikaner Right Wing family. Outrageous! Her mother takes her back to Paris, and begins to weave a tangled web of lies and secrets.
The forced marriage is disastrous, even before Ouma discovers Raphael’s mixed bloodline.
Pages stained with Amelie’s tears, frantic and despairing, with cuttings announcing my father’s death. Distraught speculations about an overdose of LSD.
Torn and bleeding, my mother bends to Ouma’s iron will and leaves me, a tiny baby, with Amelie and Tomas. Secrecy is sworn, signed, sealed and bought with a generous trust fund and the Llandudno house.
Where is this tenderhearted, passionate mother who abandoned me? Hiding behind all the many walls she’s built around her?
Overwhelmed, I put the books down. Heartrending emotions whirl around like dervishes, plunging me into a vertigo of bewilderment; old monsters drag me into in a chaotic sea of red-hot rage.
My ancestors, black and white, reach out, eyes beseeching, arms pleading.
I shudder as something harsh and brittle shatters, leaving me unfettered, lighter, freer.
New perspectives start emerging; I feel the anguish of my mother’s dark night as droplets of compassion trickle into fragile, empty spaces.
I sink into the cushions, sobbing, and lose myself completely in the melancholy beauty of an exquisite requiem.