Into The Black


I am wearing ribbons in my hair. Today is my birthday and there are presents hidden with paper I can’t wait to unwrap with trembling fingers. Children running around and screaming, kicking the legs of their chairs underneath the dining room table that is covered with the birthday spread. Death by cakes that is the price. I can taste it in my mouth, review it in my head, and feel it all sinister suspiciously in my blood. It is all coming back to me now. My mother, is she sad or glowering at my father across the room? Is he sad or the picture of health? I have eyes that can see. Can’t the eyes of a child see everything? The butterflies are so pretty. I can’t bear to tear through the wrapping. It’s a belt but I smile. It’s a hard smile. I don’t care what Anita says although Anita is my best friend but I have known Lynne longer because her parents are friends with mine. My parents have always taught me that it is the thought that counts. I stare at the flowers. I am sharing everything with Eve, my sister. Today is her birthday also. On my fifth birthday my aunt, my mother’s sister played host while my mother was in labour at the Livingstone with Eve. Everything since childhood has been down the road or a few minutes’ walk or an art not to fail or achieve, achieve, achieve, church, birth, high school, the park. There are other children here that I don’t know. I don’t speak to them. They are eating my cake. My mother is talking to them, asking about which school they go to, what grade they are in. She is wearing a pink dress with spaghetti-thin straps and sandals with heels. The dress has white polka dots on. She is much more animated with them than she is with me. She is smiling and laughing, asking them, these strangers in their party dresses who are parading across my mother’s garden, oh-so-serious with their dark hair in long plaits if they are having a nice time, if they would like anything more to eat or to drink. If only she would pay attention to me. Everything about today is too bright, harsh, grating, working on my nerves. The sun for instance, a girl’s laughter (who is older than me), the energy from all the traffic in the house, the line for dessert. My mother has the brightness of two suns. Her hair flows around her face, her perfume in a cloud and as her foot hits the sandal it makes a squelching, sucking sound. I am free to do what I want. So I choose to be alone. This is my day. Everyone else that I do not go to school with or play with in the afternoon are my mother’s guests but all the girls seemed to have paired up with each other. They stand on the lawn looking bored, watching me the birthday girl and whispering secrets to each other. My sister, Eve is still too small to play or to understand what the day really means. The boys are playing a rough and tumble game of hide-and-seek. Then it is time for the ice cream. The adults are going to play a video, something suitable for the younger generation, a cartoon. I can never remember what happens to my father when all this ‘playing’ is going on. There are never uncles at my birthday. My mother is not in the kitchen with aunts and older cousins arranging pies, finger food for a small army of neighbourhood children or pouring wine in glasses for the adults mingling around the house. The uncles only come to drop their children off and then they are on their way again in their shiny cars pressing a creased note or a silver coin into my hand and kissing or rubbing the top of my head. I usually eat too much until my stomach hurts but there’s the video. It is Looney Tunes, my favourite. I look around for my mother but she’s not there. Eve is sitting too close to the television. I know that if I touch her, the golden child, she will yell and my mother would probably come running to see what is wrong and take me out in front of everyone. I feel lost and already I feel as if it is being stored up for a time when it will be of use, useful not to me but to other people.


Fifteen candles. There is nothing splendid about youth, growing older, feeling lost, unaccomplished and insecure. It just hurts, it hurts, it hurts. There is only the dreaming, the vision of escaping into marriage and having children that sticks. I am on that road of a poet who writes of madness and illness, the sweetness, the sweat of other people’s lives. You wouldn’t like me if you really knew me, knew who I was under lock and key, behind closed doors, poison flowing through my veins, pressure and stress touching the fragile core of me. The trophy doesn’t feel, look real to me. But it is mine for a whole day and night before I have to return it. My name will be on it next year. For the first time in my life I feel the pulse of those two words put together, creative writing. I am set on another course, meeting Fugard, reading English novelists in the library during a break in the school day, winning a role in the house play but in all that rush it is still quite never enough. I am programming Adam, my brother. He has to be prepared for war. We can hear them at night in their bedroom behind the closed door. Maybe we would have been better off pretending that they were moving furniture around at night instead of fighting, gloves off, anything goes, bitterness flying through the air followed by mock defeat, tantrum after tantrum, hysterics and the glowing seed of madness. I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. This is what I write about in an essay for school. I stay up the whole night into the early hours of the morning writing it because I have left it for the last minute. I write about the holocaust. A young wife looking for her husband at a train station. It is different now from the beginning of the war when human beings were being transported like cattle, animals. These are survivors and she, the woman, the protagonist of my story, is looking for a family member or members. She imagines that he is still alive after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She is mad with grief. She is mad. But she believes because she has survived then so must he. I don’t know how to end the story. In the end I decide on ending it with a flashback to the house they first lived in when they were married and the roses she grew at the back of the house. Living through the internal, warped struggle of pain is easier to bear if you have read stories of pain and mental anguish in books or the newspaper or watched television. I didn’t call it ‘female suffering’ then. I didn’t know what to call it. It was just surrounded overwhelmingly with disbelief and a fog that for the most part was more than temporary and a saying that I chanted over and over again inside my head, giving it ample room to breath, to exist. No body can hurt as much as I do. There are some parts of me that are broken. My heart, my family, my father and the pieces that are broken are lost forever. Worst of all, humans make a habit of forgetting the best parts. They are irretrievable and dark. But on the screen in front of me I can piece them back together again. They fit nicely. For a while they, although the words might seem odd, they stay put and then I say that will do. It gives me a kind of therapeutic pleasure. The opposite of truth is looking at the theory of it all blindly and looking at the theory of it all feels like running backwards. The theory of husbands and wives breaking up and then getting back together again, going over that is the easy part. They reach a milestone in their relationship, some sought of agreement or consensus and when finally one reaches out to the other that spells the end for separation or divorce. But for the children instead of climbing hills merrily like other children their age, they will have to face mountains, climb the treacherous peak to get back to the start. They will also have to abandon the sides they choose but there was nobody to explain this to us, me, Eve and Adam when we were growing up. We didn’t care. We made our own fun. We put on plays. We were each other’s constant companions. We were happy. But the mechanism that kept our family together was going haywire. Our mother was a jumble of nerves. Our father, our hero and king was no longer the bright force in our lives that he once was. At night their bedroom door stayed shut and we couldn’t even begin to imagine the personal torment and hell that he was going through.


The city reminds me of the sadness that I felt since I was a child. The Outsider, the loneliness, the ghost, the super rat catcher but that child is gone and in her place is a citizen of the world, a woman who needs to feel, to hear words of wisdom. A citizen who was taught that in everybody’s life every moment of change is marked somewhat by pain, by a dream, by a faraway goal. The pages of my new journal are still fresh and new. I study them knowing that soon words will fill the pages, swim boldly, go where I have not gone before. Soon there will be words that will cauterise the page, leaving my head blank where it was once it was filled. There laid potential.


I have seen this in film, mental illness, the repercussions of hell, suffering and in the madness of men they are the creative thinkers, philosophers, called brilliant and genius, troubled in an unforgiving world. Those are the ‘elite’ names given to men. Did I need more explanation than that for the chronic mess I usually found myself in? But I never knew the precise moment when I felt different or moved differently or articulated something with more bravado than I knew I had. But people that I knew and sometimes that I was close to knew that I was different and wasn’t afraid to tell me so. Most times they made a joke of it. I am sure perhaps they did not mean to sound cruel, unkind or like a bully on a school playground but that is how I interpreted it. It still makes me nervous when I meet new people. When I have to make conversation I always want someone to save me from myself. Do I howl when I laugh or snort with derision? Everything feels like the opposite of sublime, as if ants have got into the sandwiches in the picnic basket, as if I am covered in blood and people are staring. Female suffering is different from a man’s rage and depression. They want to give their children what they did not have. They want to give their children what they longed for and wished for, what they desired as children and young girls before they became women and a picture, sometimes a mirror image of their own mothers. If a man is violent, a woman is emotional and sensitive. She has her own needs. For me to write was enough and for my mother it seemed that children and a large, spacious house to raise a family in was enough. But my father was not a violent man, a heavy drinker, a smoker, brutal towards my mother and me and my two siblings. He was warm, soft and cuddly like a teddy bear. He had brown eyes and made us all feel safe when we were growing up. He rested a lot. When he came home from school (he was a principal at a high school), I would watch him sleep from the doorway always waiting for him for him to wake up and catch sight of me and I would wait for him to embrace me. I would never catch him embracing my mother because she hated public displays of affection. Not in front of the children, I could imagine she probably hissed under her breath so many times, too many for my father to count until he stopped doing it. At night my father would work on his doctoral thesis in his study. We were not to play near the closed door or disturb him. You can’t imagine all the difficulties I have had to go through, the ghosts I have to put up with and the order and normalcy and simplicity I crave. What does snow feel, taste like? Like any wet, cold thing, like rain? The dogs are barking. They are going mad in the distance. There is something in his voice that annoys me, irritates me so I turn the television off. It must stay off. I am restless so I do what I know so well. I read. How far is it to the next hour? Why the overexposed, the challenges, mercies, points of departure, the roast chicken, vegetable soup welcoming me home? It is the dead of winter that I want; that I left behind in Johannesburg. It was the winter that toughened me up. Cold turning in the air, holding still in the middle of traffic facing off for their line of attack of the destitute huddled over fires under the highways and bridges and squatter camps where there are no wet leaves and butterflies.

My sister seemed so cold and indifferent, aloof; she seemed to want to distance herself from us, the rest of the family as if she was made of brighter, harder, weightier stuff than the rest of us, as if it wasn’t in her bloodline and the ladder of her genes to fail. We were weak, she was a saint. My reality for the better part of the day and sometimes the night was borderline, as if I was part of a tribe of people that time forgot in blue interiors. Swimming in a pool of blue; as if the blue had the same consistency as ink in my eyes, the blue skin of the swimming pool against my skin and of course, the pale blue school floating overhead like a ghost in a machine. Only here I felt safe amongst other schoolchildren and mothers, swimming instructors, lifesavers and fathers. Nobody could tell I was different. I was a nameless citizen. My limbs sank into the cool water as if I was sinking into hollows of warm sand. Home was a hot mess. Only in water could I escape from that fuss. Forget my brother was locked in rehab, forget my sister never phoned to speak to me, forget that nobody ever phoned. That is what the writer works with – interiors, the dark and the lightest parts of it, the architecture of the formative years, objects around the writer working manners.

Away from the stresses of and from the different paths and roads I have taken, only I had access to the museum I had built up of all the negativity I had connected with and collected over my life experience. I wish it would be easier to explain things sometimes. This is what my mother does when she picks up a brush. A hairbrush, a toothbrush to put her ‘other-face’ on when she’s off to church, a workshop at her church, to do service at the hospital, when she pushes off to a church meeting and then suddenly the love of God rises up in her when she dims her sweet pride, the rising panic and anxiety in the emotional screech of her hysterics as she makes waves all around us.

She walks out with her heels clicking, glamorous and shiny, a smartly dressed Christian woman, her hair falling in dark brown curls around her face.

Everything about her is soft, her clothes sticking to her figure, the flame of red on her cheeks, smelling like powder and scent, freshly washed blow-dried hair. Everything about me is hard, hardened by spent energy, by wasted time, by doing nothing, by sleep, by engaging my intellect and by asking myself, ‘If my mother really loved me, why would she say those things? Does she hate daddy? Is God punishing me, us, the family and why?’ This is memory and bitterness at work in the walking wounded.

Ella’s (she hasn’t gone by that name for years) ghost sits at the foot of my bed staring at me with her long, sad, mournful face. I call her the ‘genius behind the closed door’. I wait to hear for her footsteps in the dark. She keeps me company in the early hours. When dawn comes with the light filtering through the thin curtains, I turn around to look for her, but she is never there. Usually I am the talkative one and she listens. I mean with the state that she is in; all she can do is stare and wonder really what has brought the two of us together and who sanctioned ‘it’, this relationship. I am reading her books. I want to read all of them and push myself to get through it all. All the real-life episodes, the real madness of her, her lovers, her experiences, the death of her son, separation from her daughter and the alcoholism but what I really want to ask her is, how do you love, how do you fall in love. Is it always an experiment? Does it always feel unnatural and disturbing when the person you’re in love with leaves you, is someone always going to be hurt and the will the one on the receiving end of that hurt, that intense feeling of rejection and pain relive it in recurring flashbacks.

I have many questions and I hope to find the answers to them in her books, the genius in her books. Ella, I want to say, help me. Help me to understand the cause and effect of the love affair. Alone with all the difficulties of illness. What does that mean? To long for company, the smell of rain, to live and breathe solitude. Birds singing, the wind’s song and the sun disappearing behind clouds, cool breeze, father exercising, also writing, and pensive and mother resting in the quiet of the afternoon. Thinking of how I came to be in this world, alone, with my books and my writing, me with my sad, brown eyes and dark hair, brittle soul and serious nature. Now look at me. Look at how far I have come. Look at how far I still have to go. the obstacles and challenges of my youth are no longer facing me. Over time things will change. I will become more set in my ways. Discontent my middle name, peculiar, peculiar, peculiar, even more so at 32, with my life hanging precariously in the balance, no ring on my finger.

Was it all worth it? The bullying mother, the bullies on the playground, the matron and the captain hissing under their breath to mop the floor at the Salvation Army, clear the tables, wash the dishes, pack the crates, unpack them with the perishables going into the storage room, the meat going into the fridge. Even then I was living in a dream world. Imagination, the consolation prize, always under the illuminating spell of imagination, gripped by its fierce call and something was loosed in me. Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, always two cities rising up to meet me head on, a crash test dummy set on a collision course with nowhere else to go but to meet the world in a thin line with hope put aside. A dummy that knew the final outcome would be misery. I would wash the crates. Wash them out with a hose, dry them with a damp cloth and then stack them up against a wall outside. They would be filled later that day with food from Woolworths. Was I happy doing this? No, not really but in a way it comforted me.

I was around people and that had to count for something. Something in me expanded. I wasn’t that solitary figure that stood out in assembly. A stick figure, all arms and legs, awkward, who could hardly speak, open her mouth, stand her ground. I was around people who were like me, estranged from family, homeless rejects that had a low opinion of themselves, no sense of self-worth, who wanted to give of themselves but didn’t know how. Somehow being around people like that made me a kinder, more sincere version of myself. I spent nearly a year at the Salvation Army and before that a few months at a shelter. Looking back on those times, I can sense it must have been a very frightening time for me but it went by in a flash and now I have adventures, poignant and sad, funny and wise to write about. The people I have met have become like well-known characters in stories, liked, loved very much and hated. I feed on their loss, my suffering and the world that I saw in their eyes that was launched into the space around them.

And then there was my world. Sometimes I soared and there were other days I didn’t. Those were the days when I took liberties with my neurotic female sentiment. When I preferred to slide under the covers, addicted to the warmth and comfort. No addiction is kind, I tell Ella. Did she just move her head in agreement, in my direction? She, of course I have figured this out now, is just here to guide me. I understand all I have to do is talk. Whispering will suffice. I don’t have to be loud. What does it take to be a writer, to write? Her eyes seem to say you’ll soon figure that part out elegantly. There is no need for you to be so superstitious but then again, those are clearly my words, not hers. I move backwards in time. I move to childhood. ‘Age before beauty,’ snigger, snigger, sniggering behind my back and then I am on the steps, on the way to class, my cheeks burning. I am turning red but no one can see. I am safe for now because no one can see. Tonight they were fighting again.

Although they closed their bedroom door I could still hear them, father as docile as a pet and mother screaming. What they usually fought about was money. If my mother loved me, she didn’t say it. But was it all worth it, one tragedy and one adventure, one unfortunate discovery of the cruel and dangerous world in my life after the other. Yes, yes and yes. Overwhelming loneliness. What does that mean? First you succumb to it and then you must overcome. I take long walks up deserted streets, through crowds, the lunch rush in the financial hub of Johannesburg. I talk animatedly to Ella, as if I must make up for lost time, for something that I must still gain. She does not smile. But tonight she has turned away from me as if she knows something that I do not know. This is a loneliness that I must bear. It is my burden. How can I refuse it, refuse kismet? I am a grown woman, not a child yet I still feel as if there is something of the child about me. When will that change? When will sensibility start creeping in, a feminist intuition?

On maturity, illness, mothers and daughters I have this to say.

If I can see from where I am standing next to my bedroom door, (this is ajar because I left it like that) through the window made of lines of yellow light, shiny parts at my front door and stare into the face of a stranger, what would I see there meeting their eyes, intent, winter, my own washed-out or ill reflection depending on what day of the week it was? Would I see a vision or feel a change flicker and dance within the usual outspoken me, would we make commonplace conversation? Would I give my peace of mind away as I make the stranger a cup of coffee so hot that steam rises in puffs almost like white smoke in a glance? The stranger never smiles at me. I am just a poet and a writer feeling the air near my hands, pushing those buttons, dreaming a life half-lived in silence with prescriptions and medicine. This is what it has come to, the bride of kismet and the cornerstone of all illness, a weak link in the system on the take.

This is my home, my ending, my silver lining, my ray of hope, me bright with the knowledge, expectation and insight of the oftentimes unbearable energy of illness. It makes a mute and deaf clown of me. A clown who is very bad at telling jokes, getting laughs, falling over his oversized clown shoes, his nose a shiny red like a siren. I am not doing what I am supposed to, following the order that nature has set out for me. In the cold, cold night when my skin tastes like salt, when the street lamp glows in the dark, when stripes of shadows seem to win me over to sleep to the light that hits falling angels. I think of bottles littered on a field, the stamina they give a man, roads into madness, softness and sanctuary and I am reminded of the stranger at my door, the silver in his hair and beard. How we both are cast out into the black, into loneliness to settle into its purity, its season, its ritual, its intense quiet out there.

With the eyes of a child I watch the pilgrimage of the blue veins beneath the surface of your skin. Exposed to light and air they seem delicate, their pangs healthy and swimming pale, breathing down my neck. Clouds, floating mentors, they’re stiff illuminations as I fall into the ill flowers crushed by air and days and here in the dreamlike blue is courage melting the hearts of stone of the broken, the weak, the darkness of humanity and what of silence in rooms? And when I fall into the memory of you sitting at my table, your tongue bittersweet. Pure is this sense of being, of belonging to someone, of being something greater than the sum of your parts. Is this false like the view of the union of the moon and sun and earth from this world? Woman as Muse never leave me or else I will always be wintering, waiting in a sense to be washed clean, to return to you as a woman in the flesh, an epic childhood packed away.

Once you were everywhere I went, I called you ‘mother’, said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. You gave me these words, a hard and determined brother, Adam, a sister, Eve, a soft girl.

If the world is not my home then it is only a point of no return until I stop for death meeting eternity. As butterflies transform in winter like I do, do they say like I do, ‘I’m helpless, please heal me?’ before they pierce your soul. I hated school so I imagined fairy tales in class and there I found even you. So I became an avid collector of words. All I wanted was peace. When Eve went away to study and then later to work, she did not promise to write or stay in touch or phone. It was as if she had disappeared off the face of the earth or had gone underground to another time, another place, another city, the Cape. I know now what the ocean’s life must feel like, what it must fear but the hours give me courage.

It tells me that there’s love, passion, empathy in my blood even the silence in profound madness, even in the weeping for my loss of that brave little thing, Eve, Evie. I did not mean to end up here. In my tales that soft girl, Eve, the favoured daughter, her skin the colour of health, is usually in a dress or a skirt with an African print, always hovering in the background as if she had no voice, as if she had nothing of importance to say. Instead she’s building fences (taking pictures for her photography course), mending burnt bridges in a moment and in the next building an empire of art. In the land of the living she moves like a ghost with a consummate ease from one room to another (yes, I’ve found a word for it). She’s moved away from home, where the child inside her died. Eve replaced that ‘child’ casually with flowers, a hundred material things, bottles of scent; books filled with meaning traced the emptiness in her soft heart. I was left with tears blinking like diamonds in my eyes.

Agnes Brown

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