Practice Autobiography

To Jim from The Truth about Lies, to prove that I can sometimes at least try to fictionalise the truth.

I wrote the following piece as far back as fifteen years ago and I have polished it again and again till I fear it has lost most of its shine.

I should not say this but such is the editing work that goes on behind the scenes, like an orchestra practising for the big event.

The audience does not want to hear the mistakes and disharmony of these practice attempts; the audience wants to hear and see only the finished product. Though that is not entirely true.

These days audiences are also interested in process, at least many in the blogosphere are interested in process, because the blogosphere has become one big practice area for all sorts of creative endeavours. It is like one long writing workshop, a painting class, a photography lesson, in which people share their productions, their best, and sometimes their worst efforts, and discuss them.

With these thoughts in mind I dare to post a scrap of autobiography written largely from almost imperceptible memories and heavy doses of imagination. Does it hold any emotional resonance? I wonder.

The Dynamics of Liquids: Blood

I woke in the night to the sound of my mother moaning. A sad, choking sound, as if she were calling for comfort but at the same time stifling her need. It was dark in my room. A dog somewhere outside barked and the magpies began their morning warble.

I slid my feet over the edge of my bed and shivered as they hit the cold linoleum with a thud. The light broke up in blocks of gold along the darkness of the corridor as I crept close to my parent’s bedroom door and listened. My father would be angry if he saw me.

‘Momma, Momma,’ I said, and peered through the crack. She sat on the edge of her bed, gripping the sides of her dressing gown together. At the sound of my voice, she stopped and stared out towards the hallway, her eyes ringed with shadow and her face the bleached white of the stones that lined the creek bed near our house. She yanked at the bedspread and tried to cover herself with the top sheet.

Ga maar terug naar bed, schat. Ik ben okay. Okay? Her voice trembled and through the crack in the door I could see the strain on her face.

I dawdled back to bed and as I slid under the blankets, my little sister, who was asleep in the cot against the wall, opened her eyes, stared at the ceiling, and then fell back to sleep. I pulled the blankets up to my chin and squeezed my eyes closed. Maybe then, I thought, maybe, then I could keep out the pictures running through my head, pictures in red, red blood on sheets and my father standing above the bed looking down at my mother.

That morning when my little sister woke crying in her cot, my mother did not come. My father came instead and took her to their room. He did not notice me. I pretended to be asleep. My big sister came a few minutes later to get me up. She was already dressed for school.

‘You better be good this morning. Momma’s sick.’
Inside the kitchen, two of my brothers, the little ones, sat at the table along the bench. I slid in to join them. The two big boys had already left for school. Their empty bowls were smeared with traces of dried up porridge.

‘I don’t want any,’ my youngest brother said as our sister put a full bowl in front of him. He was about to protest when my father walked in. I could hear the soft tick tock of the clock on the wall. My father walked the length of the kitchen out through the back door. His shoulders stooped over his long arms in which he carried the remains of a towel rolled over itself. It was stained red. He walked across to the sink; pushed aside the dishes piled there and crossed himself,
‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’

When he had finished, my father collected the towel and walked out through the back door. It slammed shut behind him.
‘What’s he doing?’ I asked.
‘He’s baptising the baby.’ My sister stood over the stove, the wooden spoon in her hand ready to ladle out the next bowlful from the saucepan. Strands of porridge had spilt over its edge and turned black at the bottom where the pan met the flame. It gave off a burnt smell.

‘Momma had a baby last night. It wasn’t ready to be born. It wasn’t big enough.’ For a seven-year-old, my sister knew a lot. ‘Father told me all about it. And now he’s gone to the back yard to bury it.’ She paused looking at us as if testing our reaction.

‘Father was too late, so the baby will go to Limbo. You have to be baptised before you die if you want to go to Heaven.’

‘What’s Limbo?’ I asked. My sister had just spooned out my bowl of porridge and put it in front of me. The steam made my eyes water.

‘Limbo is where babies go when they aren’t baptised. And because it’s not their fault they didn’t get baptised, God made limbo. And it’s as good as heaven. You get to eat whatever you like, whenever you like. And you don’t have to do any work or anything and you can play all day. But the trouble is, in limbo you don’t get to see God. In Heaven He’s around all the time, but not in limbo. In limbo you can have a good time but you’re on your own.’

Through the kitchen window, we watched our father force the heavy spade into the ground with the full force of his boot. He dug up clumps of dirt, which he threw in a mountain beside him. The soil soon changed colour from the dark brown of the surface to the khaki yellow of the clay beneath. He was intent on his digging, and brushed away flies with the back of his hand. He dug a deep hole. Our goat, Hettie who was tied to a eucalypt at the far end of the yard dragged on her rope and managed to reach the edge of the hole. My father waved her off with his spade. Hettie tottered away. Even she knew to keep a distance from my father.

It was hot the day our mother lost her baby. What began as a drip became a flood. Drips of old, brown blood that later gave way to new blood, fresh and flooding. All day long, she felt the outward flow of a life that had only just begun. Like a penny doll in its little cradle, she said. Twelve weeks into the world and it was gone.