READING

Beyond the Railway Line | Jarred Thompson

Beyond the Railway Line | Jarred Thompson

My grandmother’s head pushed through the metal of the fence at the university. She looked exactly the way she did in the photographs mom kept of her: dark mocha skin with a bush of grey hair that’d been combed to resemble the shape of a mushroom. She wore a blue and white maid uniform; the one I suspect she was always seen in while alive and working in the houses of the rich in Cape Town.  But this was Braamfontein, what was she doing here?

I blinked, hitting myself in several places to make sure I wasn’t seeing things again.  It had been 3 years since my last hallucination. Dr. Paul had calibrated my meds perfectly since the last one that literally sent me screaming through traffic.  

“Thomas has early onset of schizophrenia demonstrating hallucinogenic characteristics.” Dr. Paul told mom 3 years ago, her face turning cold and grey like the skin of snoek. I hadn’t a clue what all that fancy lingo meant, but I knew I was different. I could never explain it to others but deep down I felt it.

 I felt I knew the internal workings of nature but this knowledge never revealed itself in words. No. It was more like atmospheres: momentary tears in the fabric of my senses where the whispers of alternate realities lay hidden. 

Ouma kept staring at me through the palisade fencing. She was looking at me as if she wanted to tell me something, begging me to come closer. So I did. The closer I got to the fence the wider her eyes grew wider until it looked like they might fall right out of her skull. 

“Hey watch out!” Someone shouted, making me fall back on the university lawn. A black Range Rover drove by, hooting at me. The woman driving the car wagged her finger, mouthing the most obscene things in my direction. 

The person who had shouted walked up and extended their hand, pulling me onto my feet. I held the elongated fingers of a woman, a young woman, whose black fingernails caught my attention. She had long, red braids that were tied in a loose bun on top of her head with plump cheeks that made it seem like her mouth was filled with food. 

“Are you okay? I didn’t mean to startle you but you were heading straight for that car.”

“No. No. It’s fine. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“You looked completely out of it.” I didn’t answer, my eyes drifting round her body toward the fence. Ouma had gone. 

“You sure you’re okay? Hey aren’t you in my philosophy class?”

I took another good look at her. She was right. We were in philosophy together. She was the most Afrocentric student out of the lot of us, always brining up African philosophy, arguing for the wisdom of our indigenous cultures to “define who we, as Africans, are”.  Prof Weaver dubbed her the “post-colonial experience”.  The name kinda stuck and she seemed to own it. 

“It’s Karabo.”

“Oh yes, I remember. I’m Thomas.” I said. She had a fresh soapy smell to her. It made me think of how musty I must have been coming off. “Thank you for your help. I gotta go.” I fumbled with myself, making sure that nothing had fallen out my pockets.  

“Yeah, sure. No problem.”  She picked up her bag and carried on down the path toward the student center, not looking back at me. 

That evening a storm heaved itself through the vulva of the heavens. Lightning whipped the air into a frenzy as I sat up in my room with the blinds open watching the flashes go off like bombs of light in my bedroom. I didn’t tell mom or dad about seeing Ouma because they’d worry too much, assuming that my meds were out of sync again. They wouldn’t understand that this was different to my previous episodes. The details in Ouma’s face was way more real than any episode I’d had before. 

***

“Ma I was wondering…how did Ouma Venus pass away?” I asked at dinner. Mom raised her eyebrows while dad burrowed into his mash potato.

 “Well boy, before you were born your Ouma Venus lived in Cape Town. She was a maid in the white peoples’ homes back in the day when everyone else lived on the outskirts of the city. Ouma Venus lived with Uncle Devon in the back courters of the MacNab vineyard. We never saw her much because she worked hard to give us the comfortable life we had. But…” Mom stopped, filling her mouth with salad. 

“But?”  I finished my food, pushing my plate to one side and focusing my attention on her.

“Ouma Venus got ‘the calling’ late in her life.”

“The calling?”

“Do we really have to speak about this at the table?” said Dad, slicing through his lamb chops and making the screeching sound of serrated  knife on plate.  

“What do you mean Alan? That’s what they call it and that’s what happened.”

“I know that’s what happened. It just all very…uncomfortable.”

“Ag man. Stop being such a laanie. You’re a coloured man living in A-F-R-I-C-A. Sandton is still Africa you know. Get used to it.” Ma waved dad off, turning to me again. 

“Ouma Venus became a sangoma, Thomas. Though she was classified coloured in those days she was more black than anything else. She came from a black mother and white father. So I guess you could say she was ‘first generation coloured’.” Ma rolled her eyes when she said this; I sensed a frustration uncoiling itself on her tongue. 

“So Venus was actually black?”

“That’s right. Her mother was a Zulu woman who had an affair with a British tourist. These kinds of things have happened and have been happening since…well Jan Van Reinbeck I suppose.”

“So we’re black?”

“No! We’re coloured.” Dad stressed, his mouth cutting into the word “coloured” as if he were carving it out of a block of wood. I didn’t see the need to stress the difference. 

“Anyway,” continued Ma, “When she got the calling Uncle Devon wasn’t very happy about it. It made him even angrier when she decided to go ahead with the training to become a sangoma.”

“Why was he angry?”

“I think he was unsure of what it all meant. And maybe he felt that his daughters should be above such unChristian things.” Ma’s eyes shot over to dad as he got up and cleared the table. Dad retreated to the kitchen, banging pots and plates without saying another word. 

“So that’s why Uncle Devon divorced her and moved you guys to Joburg?”

“That’s right. Venus tried to fight for custody but Uncle Devon earned more money when he got a job at a furniture factory near Riverlea. Plus he said her ‘sangoma ways’ weren’t good for us Christian children. The judge sided with him in the end.”  Mom went quiet, taking her lips to the mug of coffee in front of her.   

“Then what happened?” I asked. 

“She disappeared.”

“What?”

“People said they saw her on the train the evening she went missing. Some told us they saw her crossing the railway lines. But…she just vanished.”

“How can that happen? How can someone just vanish and no one hear from her for years?”

“People went missing all the time in those days.” Dad spoke up. “It happens to lots of people, young and old every day. Even today. We just don’t hear about it.”

“Uncle Devon started telling people that the whole sangoma thing made her lose her mind. That maybe she wanted to disappear, out of grief of losing custody of her children. He told your aunt and I that she probably took her own life.” said Ma. 

“But what do you think happened?” I asked. 

“I can’t say boy. It’s like one of those mysterious in life that never gets solved. We just hope that wherever she is, she’s at peace.”

“Maybe your father was right. She couldn’t handle losing her family for ‘the calling’.” said Dad  

“She loved us, really loved us. She wouldn’t have vanished without telling us where she was going.” Mom got up and walked upstairs. The sound of running bathwater from began to gurgle between the three of us. 

“Come dry the dishes.” said Dad, dropping a dishcloth in front of me and walking upstairs. 

***

Blades of grass brush up against my legs. The sun sears red against my eyes. It’s setting. There’s a silhouette on the horizon, running toward me, waving its arms. It’s a person. No. A woman. 

Ouma.

I run toward her unable to feel my legs; I’m floating toward her. A dark cloud rises above the horizon, it scatters into a million black dots. 

Birds? No. Crows. 

They explode above Ouma, towering, dominating, about to collapse onto her. 

“Ouma run”! I yell. 

She’s waving her arms still, she’s mouthing something. 

“I can’t hear you.” 

The horde of crows nosedive on top of her, covering her from view. I cannot will my body to go any faster. They’re tearing at her flesh, they’re ripping her apart, piece by piece, and laughing while they do it.  

 “Voetsak! Go away!”

By the time I get to her it’s too late: they’ve skinned her with their beaks. She’s all bone and raw pink.  

 I can’t even close my eyes against the horror. 

“Bury me. Bury me.” she says over and over before one of the crows slip into her mouth, gagging her. She tries to swallow but the crow is too big, there’s too much of it to swallow whole…

***

“And how often do you get this specific dream?” Dr Paul asks me, pressing his ballpoint pen to his black notebook. 

“I got it for the first time two weeks ago. Every day since then it’s been happening more regularly.”

“Anything happen a few weeks ago that you think could have triggered it?” He looks up at me over his spectacles, watching my body language. 

“No, nothing that comes to mind. Maybe it’s just school stress. I have kinda been flunking some of my classes. I’m worried I’ll lose my bursary.”

“Well I suggest you try and organize extra lessons for yourself. Or let your parents know that you need academic support. You have to trust them Thomas. They want the best for you.”

“Yeah I know.” I undo my shoes and draw my feet up on the couch next to me, taking to rubbing the soles of my feet to relax myself. 

“Now I still think your meds are keeping you well-balanced but I would like to suggest you get some herbal anti-anxiety medication. And maybe something to make you sleep soundly. Here, I’ll prescribe you something.” He scribbles down on his pad while my eye catches a new painting on the wall behind him. 

“That’s an interesting piece.”

“ I just got it. Picasso’s Minotauromachy. So visceral don’t you think?”

 “The girl,” I say, “she’s just standing there with a candle and flowers, facing a the beast like that.” 

“Something about her seems so regal, doesn’t it? Like she knows something about the beast that we don’t.”

“The man over there. He’s just running away from it. What a coward.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He should protect the girl. He should face the beast. How can he leave her to fend for herself like that?”

“Maybe she believes in the goodness of the beast in a way that he can’t?”

“You can see it in her face.”

“What do you think she knows?” Dr. Paul turns his head to one side and scribbles something down on his notepad. I get up and move toward the painting to get a closer look. My face hovers over the image, focusing in the area of skin around the girl’s eyes. For a moment I think I have the answer, then it slips from me. 

“Well, our time is up. Here’s the prescription for the sleeping tablets. And the name of the herbal remedy. I’ll have Jonah call you in about a month to schedule another session ok.”

“Okay doc.” I say, gathering my things. 

***

 Karabo and I have started seeing each other on a casual basis. It started when I defended her views in philosophy class when she criticized European Existentialism as “a bourgeois philosophy that had very little connection to the African concept of Ubuntu”. I couldn’t argue my point as eloquently as she could but I could tell she appreciated my support in class. 

“You wanna grab a drink sometime?” She asked me after class one afternoon. 

“Yeah that’d be great.” I said, grateful that I hadn’t had any strange dreams or hallucinations for a good week and a half. 

 We had semi-bitter wine at Kitcheners in Braam a week later. The place was unusually quiet for a Wednesday night but then again it was the middle of the month. Still, you still got your general artsy types that spoke at uncomfortably high volumes, knew every barman and seemed to never run out of cigarettes to smoke.  

“So you’re going down to Cape Town at the end of the month?”

“Yeah. I asked my parents to take me to where my Ouma Venus used to stay. She disappeared before I was born and well…I want to find out more about her.”

“She disappeared?”

“No one knows what happened to her after my mom’s family moved up here.”

“And your mom has never wondered?”

“Both my parents are very weird around the topic. But I guess they think taking me down there will ease my curiosity.”

“And will it?” She takes a sip of wine while handing over her lighter to a group of older men sitting not too far from us. 

“You know a lot of people here I see.”

“Yeah, I come here a lot.” She shrugs, digging out a spec of dirt from her fingernails. 

“Can I tell you something? Something I haven’t really told anyone.”

“Ofcourse.” 

“I’ve been seeing her, my Ouma Venus. She appears to me sometimes. She comes to me in my dreams too. The sleeping meds my doc prescribed has blocked the dreams somewhat though. But it’s like they’re my only defense against this thing. Sometimes, when I’m in one of those deep thinking moods, I can feel an hallucination brewing at the base of my brain. It’s like a strange bubbling sound, a ring so faint I wanna scratch the insides of my ears to stop it.”

Karabo listened to me go on about my visions and dreams without showing an inch of surprise. She nodded frequently and drank her wine slow. 

“You know what you need.” She said, squeezing my hand tight. “You need imphepho. 

***

A week later, Karabo and I sat on the rooftop of her student residence overlooking the concrete heart of the city. The buzz of Joburg reached up towards us even from that height.  Rush-hour traffic had just started to die down and the sun had given up its last coughs of light. 

“Here. Eat this.” Karabo said, handing me strange-looking mushrooms. 

“I’ve never done shrooms before Karabo. Are you sure about this?”

“I’ve done this plenty of times. Trust me. It’s an amazing experience. Plus it’s a clear night so the stars will give us ambiance. And once the imphepho is burning who knows what our minds will reveal.” Her braids were cut shorter now; they hung just above her shoulders like curing pieces of biltong. 

I ate the mushrooms like she asked me to. They tasted bitter and earthy. Then she lit the imphepho with a match. “Put your head over the bowl and breathe in.” She said, turning on a speaker that started playing a compilation of esoteric chanting and African drums.

I breathed in the fumes, wheezing against the bitter smoke that burnt my nostrils and throat while making my eyes water. 

“Breathe in. Deeper. Deeper. Just for a few more seconds.” She rubbed my back as I coughed and wheezed. I began to feel nauseous, lightheaded, then—like a power plug being yanked out its socket—I plunged…

 

When I woke up Karabo had disappeared. The evening had taken on a biting chill with the wind from down below swooping up to the rooftop, carrying wafts of cooking oil, exhaust fumes and sewerage from below. 

“My boy.”  I turned round and saw Ouma standing behind me with her arms open, ready to embrace me. 

“Ouma” I  mouthed, feeling a magnetic pull toward her chest. I collapsed into her arms the way a beached whale would delight in being pushed back into the ocean. She wrapped her arms round me and breathed on me. Her breath smelt like wet mud and then I saw it: 

Four men come up behind her while she is walking home over the railway lines. White men, smelling of liquor, looking for trouble. They spotted her, walking alongside the road, heading home.  

“Come show us what you can do.”

They refuse to leave her alone. She runs into the bushes and they follow her on foot. She trips on a thorn bush. 

I stop seeing. Ouma is still holding me. I try to speak but can’t. She just holds me, breathing. I try to feel for a heartbeat but she’s hollow. Then I hear scrambling, voices shouting, coming from inside her chest. One of the voices is hers and the others are male. She’s cursing them in Zulu: she’s cursing the land they now own. The land they’ve taken. The sound of a gunshot makes me jolt out of her arms, falling to the ground. I look up at her and she’s smiling down at me. 

“Bury me.” She says, opening her mouth as wide. From her mouth I hear the distinct sounds of shovels scrapping and digging into the earth. The sound of something heavy rolls and falls mutely down a hole. 

Ouma closes her mouth and charges toward me. I get out of her way as she runs right past me and jumps off the rooftop. 

“Ouma no!” I run toward the ledge and look over. But there’s nothing there. Blood drains from my brain and air fills every crevice in my head. I’m unable to stay awake. 

***

When I woke up I was laying in Karabo’s bed. She was beside me, running her fingers through my hair with one hand and tracing circles with her other hand in the cradle of my palm. 

“What happened?” 

“You blacked out on the roof. You started talking in your sleep, a lot of gibberish and mumbling. I got Chris to help carry you down to my room. Are you feeling okay?” She sat up, pushing her hair out of her face and handing me a glass of water. 

“Yeah, I think so.” I took the glass, savoring the moisture of the water in my mouth. “I think I know what I have to do now.”

I explained my dream to Karabo. Again, she seemed unsurprised by what I had seen. 

“How can we be sure that our dreams aren’t real?” She asked me once I relayed my entire vision. “How can we really know that all of this that we see, feel, touch, smell, breathe, isn’t just a tiny part of all that there is to experience?” 

“I don’t know how. But sometimes I wish it didn’t always had to be me who felt these things. Sometimes I want to feel tiny. And not part of larger forces out of my control.”

She laughed, handing me my car keys. “You probably should get going. Your parents will be calling soon.”

“Yeah, you right. Thanks for this.” I got up, gathering my things. A part of me wanted to sleep there with her. But I sensed even a girl like her needed her time alone. 

“I’ll message you when I get home.”

“Drive safe.” She said, kissing me on the cheek and brushing a bead of sweat off my brow. 

***

At the end of the month my parents and I took a trip down to the Cape winelands where Ouma Venus and Uncle Devon stayed. It took some explaining but eventually mom got the MacNab family to allow us onto their property to visit the old back courters where she used to stay. 

There wasn’t much of the back courters left to see though. The building had been left in ruin: without a roof, doors or windows it was handed over to the elements of decay. All the paint had flaked off the walls and the cement between the bricks barely held the structure together.

“So many memories…” Ma said as the three of us stood amongst the ruins. Even dad was taken up by the sense of nostalgia in the place. The inside was just a hollow of dust and stone; anything that could suggest a family once lived here was gone. I put my hand to the stone, feeling the heat of it rise up to meet my palm. 

 

We stayed for a weekend in a quaint guesthouse not far from the old railway lines that ran through the area.  One night, when my parents had gone to sleep I snuck out the guesthouse and headed down to the old railway line. It was a cloudy night, with no moon or stars in the sky, only the sound of crickets dancing in the air. When I spotted the old railway line overrun by weeds my pulse began to press against the base of my neck. I walked over the railway, retracing the steps I knew Ouma Venus had taken. I wasn’t sure how I knew the right way to go, but I trusted where my feet would take me. 

My thoughts drifted to the painting in Dr. Paul’s office then, finally, I stumbled upon the spot. I know it was the spot because of the sense of Déjà vu that rose within me. The earth was dry and hard with blackjack bushes sticking out. I got out the tiny shovel that I’d packed in my backpack and started digging. The earth refused to give way at first, but the more I placed my weight and muscle behind the shovel the more hospitable it became. After several hours, I had dug a substantial hole in the ground. By this time the clouds had cleared from the sky and a crescent moon hung like a celestial tear drop over me.   

My clothes were sandy, my nostrils dry, with the heat of my body attracting a healthy swarm of mosquitoes and gnats that bit at my ankles and wrists. I was about to give up when I hit something with my shovel. It was round and hard, harder than earth and smoother than stone. It was bone.

***

“Thank you boy for making us come here. I didn’t know how much I needed to see this place again.” Ma said, turning to face me from the front of the car as we made our way back to Joburg. 

“I needed to see it too Ma.” I looked out across the flat land that extended far beyond what I could see, imagining all the bones waiting patiently beneath the earth to be transformed back into soil. 

We got back home round ten that night. It was only when I started unpacking that I realized I’d neglected to take my meds for the past week. A wave of anxiety washed over me as I started questioning whether anything I had experienced in the past week was real or not. 

I dug into my backpack, pulling out the fragment of skull that I’d unearthed beyond the railway line. What remained of Ouma was just a fragment of a forehead, a piece of an eye socket and an unfinished jawline. But how was I sure that this was in fact Ouma Venus and not some other, unlucky stranger?  

I couldn’t be absolutely sure. But I didn’t care. 

Later that night I went out into the backyard and buried the skull at the base of our Mopane Tree. It was round the time of year when the first Mopane worms were hatching from their larvae and slithering down along the bark. 

***

“It has been the driest of seasons for farmers all over the Cape. Water levels are at an all-time low in the area and government officials have confirmed a state of emergency in the area. Day Zero is fast approaching and the surrounding areas and provinces have begun donating water to the arid regions, in hope that this drought will end sooner rather than later. Let us hope that day zero keeps getting pushed back.”

 The reporter on the TV waves off flies and dust as she reports on the drought in the Cape. I’m drinking green tea in our lounge on a Saturday morning, thinking of meeting up with Karabo later on. My dreams and hallucinations seemed to have stopped, for now. 

“There has, however, been some torrential rain this week, owning to a low pressure system coming into the Western Cape from the East.” The reporter continues as montages of dry land, fruit sellers and wine buyers flash across the screen. “Who knows what effect this will have on the economy in this province?”

I look to the Mopane tree and notice the yellow and white stripes of the Mopane worms catching the morning light. This year more worms have hatched on our Mopane tree than any other in memory. Each week I collect a bowl of them, fry them and eat them with spicy tomato gravy. I never used to eat the worms from the tree before but I guess it’s true what they say: your taste buds change over time. 

 

 


Jarred Thompson Agbowo Art African Literary Art

Jarred Thompson 

Jarred Thompson is a 27 year old, queer male, Johannesburg-based, South African writer whose fiction publications include  The Johannesburg Review of Books, ImageOutWrite (2018), and The Heart of The Matter (2019) among others. When he is not writing he is practising his chaturangas, walking in nature or binge watching series.

This entry appeared in The Memory Issue


Leave a Reply

INSTAGRAM
KNOW US BETTER
Please Add Widget from here