Marcy collapsed. Eternal spinning, her limbs became liquid, nothing making sense, she flailed aimlessly in mind and body and then a chemical numbness took over.
As she woke up it was, briefly, in the warm cocoon of normality – the whimsies of her small-town rural life cushioned her … cooking, cleaning, protecting her son Luke and tiptoeing around her husband Mike. Then, reality hit.
“Marcy, honey, it’s Bella here” cold fingers clutched hers, attempting intimacy.
“What are … why are you here?” she mumbled. Marcy had not seen her rebellious sister-in-law for years.
“Marce, sweets, do you feel okay? Can I get you anything? Would you like tea? Are you hungry?”. This inane babbling woke her up deeply and instinctively. Bella was never nice or conciliatory. Her default persona was argumentative and indifferent.
“Is it true?” she croaked, knowing Bella’s stubborn attachment to hard truth. The tightening of the fingers and the muffled sob was enough.
A couple of weeks later -
Inside the dark curtains, Marcy woozily heard buzzing and her phone’s insistent trilling. She was irate at the thought of someone calling at this time and her rage built. “What do you want? Do you know what time it is? Leave me the fleck alone” she shouted into the offending object.
“It’s past lunch time and I’ve been leaning on your goddam bell for the past twenty minutes. What is fucking wrong with you?” Bella screeched, at least to Marcy’s hungover eardrums. “Let me in RIGHT NOW”. No point in denying a human hurricane.
Bella clumsily made tea and fidgeted, clearly frustrated, desperately wanting to get back to her life but unsure as to whether she could safely leave her friend with her newly acquired alcohol issue, dead son and vanished husband. Marcy giggled, guffawed, and hiccupped loudly.
“That’s it, Marcy”, Bella was suddenly incandescent as if her pity quotient had finally run out. “You’re coming home with me, for a while at least, and that’s that. There’s no other option.”
No-one could call Bella’s decision-making open to negotiation, and Marcy was in no fit state to argue, she didn’t care about anything. She felt ephemeral as she was hustled through multiple airports, and it all blurred and muddled.
Ten years earlier –
Bella and Mike were remarkably close twins, at first. Marcy met Bella initially, forced together on a geography project by random pairing, and surprising each other with the growth of a deep and genuine friendship. Her relationship with Mike grew out of familiarity and, she thought, the shared gap in their lives when Bella left.
Marcy shook herself and confronted the present slightly myopically
Her emotionless in law had welled up at being re-united with her two rotties, multiple cats, and her long-suffering husband. Bella’s house was chaotic compared to her own and she felt overwhelmed. There was a smokiness in the air from a braai and strange smells and noises that Marcy felt thoroughly discombobulated by. She snuck back to what she thought was her room and passed out.
“Why did you bring her?” Bella’s husband asked. “She won’t be happy here, it’s too different to what she’s used to - surely there must have been someone who could have looked out for her over there?”
“It’s not as simple as that” she sighed. “I feel responsible for her, she wouldn’t have ended up with Mike if not for me.” She waggled a large empty wine glass and gestured to the cats on her lap (Thou must not disturb the felines, being one of her personal commandments). Once replenished and with a newly lit cigarette, she continued.
“I told you he upped and left the moment the hospital called – he even had his truck loaded in advance. There is no-one – no family, and the last four years have been about Luke to the exclusion of everything else. The bloody Doctor’s told them no more than a year or two and I think she’d even begun to believe the whole diagnosis was wrong.”
“But why do you think her grief will be any less here?”
Bella shuffled, slightly guiltily, and looked mildly embarrassed. “Grief like hers doesn’t disappear, it may dissipate in time, if she’s lucky. I want her to remember who she was, to find perspective and for us to keep a promise we made years ago. Jetlag catching up, am off to reunite with my pillows.” And she fled. Her husband was used to the whirlwind antics and merely shook his head.
Marcy was aware of it being morning but after enforced recent days of sobriety, she was suddenly desperately struggling to understand quite how she had ended up here, and where was here? Had she gone to Luke’s funeral? Where had Mike gone? What the ….
Bella barged in accompanied by slobbering beasts and a large cup of coffee. “Come on, Marce, time to ‘rise and shine’. We’re leaving in an hour or so, no need to unpack, just find something cool to wear, it’s hot as hades today. And remember a hat”.
“But, what, where ….”. She was talking solely to two large, inquiring canine heads.
As they drove, it suddenly clicked for Marcy. She realised where they were and with it a sense of shame; she’d never reached out to Bella after her marriage and Mike had always been dismissive, implying that his twin was an eternal travelling rootless waif, but her home had seemed very permanent and oddly grown up.
Bella looked sideways, Marcy looked like she was finally exiting her fugue state and she felt a pang of indecision, she was a ‘pantser’ not a ‘planner’ and this was a huge gamble. Pulling on the long, possibly even forgotten, thread of an old school project, desperately hoping her friend would find the same soul food as she had.
They had been driving through an environment Marcy could not comprehend. First, was the ‘road’, peppered as it was with monstrous potholes, irregular bumps and lumps and scarily overpopulated by over-hanging grass, cyclists, goats, cows, small children and overloaded, exhaust belching trucks leading to a surreally terrifying passenger experience. Bella was nonchalant, smoking intermittently, and swearing only when a particularly egregious infraction occurred. Second, was the primitiveness (she knew she probably shouldn’t think that word) but wonky mud huts with warped iron sheets, small plots of maize and beans everywhere and the smokiness of charcoal fires in place of electricity. Women, even children, with babies strapped to their backs physically pounding the dried maize kernels into submission, whippet thin dogs with hanging nipples searching for sustenance and the small oddly named equally wonky businesses …. the Hang Over Cure Bar, the Best Witch Doctor (who has mastered HIV, malaria and, most crucially, impotence), the Find Everything Superstore that was no bigger than her living room. Her mind spun.
“Some heavy corrugations coming up now, hold onto to your tits” Bella nudged her ribs, with a maniacal grin. The awful rattling may have done something to her brain but when she looked around again, she noticed how happy people were with seemingly so little, the super smart boys and girls in their school uniforms and how unhurried the pace was, how many small traders there were dependent on nothing other than their fields. She was amazed at how the sun seemed to be in the very air, a hot baking heat with not an ounce of humidity and the constant dust everywhere.
We approached a small two-lane bridge (also wonky), with a gate and signs, going over a large river and Bella smiled at me, “The project in real life” she said, and drove through.
I expected too much as soon as we got into the park, I thought I would see all those pictures coming to life immediately, but it was anti-climatical. The signs of humans disappeared abruptly but then it was just bush, and nothing. Before my mind caught up with my mouth “But, where are the animals”, I blurted out.
Bella pulled over and looked at me. “They’re all around you, but you have to look and it’s not all about the big beasts; it’s the small stuff that keeps the ecosystem going, not only here but everywhere”. She got out and walked about 15 metres from the car. With a quick glance around for predators (lions), I followed her.
She asked me to look down first – and pointed out the different ants, beetles and others that worked to keep the soil healthy and turned discarded products into useable ones. The spoor that had been left by so many larger mammals as an indelible, but fleeting, footprint. One layer up and the grazing habits became clear along with the butterflies flitting and she found a chameleon traversing its painfully slow way up a bushy shrub … one zygodactyl foot up, pause, keep pausing, eye swivelling around and then a sway and again. Up again and bees were busy doing the trees' work and pray mantis’ and winged beetles jostled. In the mopane tree, there was a bulbous ball of what appeared to be earth – a wasp’s nest apparently and within surrounding trees she noticed some old, and new, nests and on an uppermost branch a bird of prey was meticulously cleaning its feathers.
Suddenly, a cacophony of screaming and Bella moved them slightly. A troop of vervet monkeys had suddenly appeared in the trees, swinging like manic acrobats, cacking like broken records, many with babies hanging on for dear life to their midriffs.
“It’s the flowers they’ve come for” Bella pointed out and then a herd of small antelope also came into view. “They come together for security; the monkeys have exceptional sight, and you can hear their alarm calls for miles”.
She turned me gently to a lagoon I hadn’t noticed. “It’s an oxbow, do you remember those?” I did, from the recesses of my mind – the story of the mighty river changing its trajectory over time and leaving parts of itself abandoned, but not unloved. The lagoon was home to hippos and crocodiles and a few lucky fish, and I jumped.
Bella laughed, “It’s just the hippos, they have this rather odd combo of donkey, horse and lack of oxygen type of sound going”. She said that they were only risky at night when they came out of the water to feed, and not to under-estimate their speed or aggressiveness if you got between them and the water. Who was this person?
We drove on and I relaxed. I felt calmer and wasn’t sure why; it was like the arms of ancients embraced and comforted me. I realised that what I was seeing, could have been seen centuries earlier and that link somehow comforted me in a way I can’t describe. It made me realise how small I was in the scheme of things and …
“Look” Bella pulled over again and pointed at two bull elephants. “Those two are in musth. It’s brutal – their testosterone readings go off the charts, and they must be at least 30 years old but behave like teenagers”.
I would have watched those elephants for hours, but I began to understand Bella had an end goal in mind and as we continued deeper into the park, she pointed out more.
The giraffe whose slightly grotesque over-sized grey tongue looped itself around fruits and leaves in a macabre dance of death. The baboons with canines larger than a lion’s whose absurdly coloured bottoms made them oddly comedic. The impala, and puku, whose ubiquitous presence was a constant. And the trees – the much ignored guardians and sentinels of our planet. Bella was oddly rabid about trees; they seemed to be her Gods in a strange way.
And the river at every turn, the lifeblood of all those around it meandering and churning and providing a home for that most prehistoric of beasts; the crocodile. The threat ever present and hidden, sometimes showing with a couple of nostrils on the surface.
The zebras, and Bella launched into lecture mode "They're not hiding from the environment, they're blending in with each other so its harder for a predator to focus on a single target. A baby or a limping animal will stand out". Harsh, I thought.
As the sun began to set, and the sky started to light up with some of the most amazing combination of colours I had ever seen, we screeched to a sudden halt and Bella pointed. "Look, a leopard", she whispered and her face was rapt. We inched closer and the cat looked down quizzically and then returned her attention to more important cleanliness issues. There was a sudden sound and she changed immediately; alert, ears moving, sniffing, scanning and her beauty changed to latent danger. She jumped from the tree, silently, and stuck her white tipped tail in the air and walked away without a second look.
A noise behind me and suddenly we were surrounded my elephants, but I hadn't heard anything - I looked at Bella, and she grinned "They're quick and quiet and you only heard anything as they were eating, they're fine. They have their own way of communicating which we can't hear but they are very verbose when threatened".
We moved on and arrived at what I can only describe as a glamp camp, Bella obviously knew everyone and before long we were sitting round a log fire surrounded by a great blackness peppered with more stars than I had ever imagined.
This was the world as it had been - a long mournful, guttural WHHOOMPH, sounded in the distance - a male lion I was told. The air was slower, the pace was measured to the surroundings and I felt tension percolate away. The wind brought new scents and none of them were familiar. I felt a re-kindled sense of self, and adventure.
"Marcy" she began. I held up my hand - not now. Let me melt into what is around me, imbibe it, forget my life, for one night.
Tomorrow is another day.
Bella revelled in some satisfaction - there was so much more to see.