Empire of Dirt: Chapter Two


Location 22 | 2014 | Egg Tempera on Paper

The heavy woolen blankets of his bed were stifling, as he shivered under the tensions of his illness, and yet they comforted him. He lay there, shaking and sweating, at times barely conscious of anything other than the pains that seemed to rip and tear their way down his body. He had remained silent, knowing that any utterance could be heard and re-listened to until it made the sense that they wanted from it. At times his room seemed to him to be merely a device to facilitate hearing and seeing.

He had certainly not spoken or made any move to communicate with his parents about the one thing that lay present in his mind; the shock of his mother’s words. Each time he opened his eyes after sleep, and realized where he was, those words that she had whispered in his ear seemed to echo out aloud. Rebounding against the wooden panels of his room and crashing back into his head with such seemingly audible reality that he wanted to cry out. And then, stopping himself, he would whisper deep in his thoughts ‘quiet’. While in this fit of anxiety he would curl up hiding his head in his bedclothes in the hot stale air, trembling, tears running over his scarred face he would then breathe inaudibly into his feather mattress. ‘Quiet mother.’

When she came in, he would look at her searching the contours and structures of her face for any cipher that she might offer him. But so far as he could tell there were none. She came to place wet towels on his body and forehead when the temperature was at the point of breaking him, as the burning deep inside seemed to want to crack his body like a kiln too hot for the clay. He would grab out for her hands, as the illness set fire to his torso and the freezing cloths felt as if they were filled with burning arrows piercing his skin.

But while clutching hands they would say nothing. The only movement, the only sign that there was any connection between these two people was the fact that twice, at the times that he though he could take it no more, he felt the soft almost undetectable pulsing of her middle finger and thumb on his hand. Four, yes four, small pressures that showed that there was something between the two of them. At times he doubted it was even there. Perhaps it was just the pulse in his hand. But no, he had felt it and counted out the rhythm. Bimbim bimbim, yes it was there. We will be free, we will be free, we will be free.

Dressed on most days in her standard green merino polo neck and ski pants, she swabbed his body down, the moisture drying almost instantly on his scorching skin. But she showed no signs except for the four pulses of her finger of being anything but his mother. She said: ‘M’angkry wif u. We wunt to ave u beater bit m’angkry wif u. U mist not uf to the see go wifought us.’ She would say staring at him with what looked like the anger that came from hurt. He had heard her say this before. It was true he had loved the sea, he still did. He had been told a hundred times that he could not be a swimmer. That he was born in the mountains. That he was born to teach the Adelity how to ski and not how to swim. ‘Mi, thoo ist a skyer ney swimmer is thoo.’   His mother had said to him a thousand times. They no doubt had heard it a thousand times and so there was at least one consistency in the story they had told the Paladins.

His father too came in to the room at times during the day, placing the cold icy cloths on him. But mostly it was his mother that he remembered. And mostly it was the words, ‘Shh don’t speak,’ that were in his thoughts. But, however strong the urge was to communicate and no matter how the illness tore at the tender loose threads of his sanity, wrenching him into a world he could at times almost willfully collapse into, he was aware of the fact that any discussion or any attempt at communication, while they were at home in the chalet, would mean exclusion and the camps. He knew that even during his sleep his thoughts were focused on holding his mouth closed and keeping his tongue pressed against the top of his palate. He sometimes woke almost choking himself with his own tongue as he pressed it too far into the back of his throat.

Most of the time during his illness there was only a heater in the room that he could look at. It glowed with a light flickering like a fire as it blew out its perpetual stream of hot air. The snow fell outside his window. He heard it in the night slapping against the window pains and he could see the swirls outside during the day as he lay there starring out at the blank white emptiness of his room. As the illness subsided, during the day he began to notice the play of the shadowy patterns rendered by the falling of the snow against the light of the day and those of the flickering fake fire heater. He watched their movement replaying the same patterns on his ceiling and walls as he grew stronger.

He could not quite remember exactly what he had dreamt and if in attempting to hold his tongue he had spoken out. He knew only that one dream had been repeated again and again. He was in a village, perhaps it was even his own village, only it was a dry and arid flat land, a land without a horizon. It was unending to the point that he knew there could be no escape. One’s figure would always stand out against the desert no matter how far you were, an eye would always be able to see you there standing alone walking towards, he was not sure what. One had no place to run to, other than the unending stretches which multiplied and multiplied threefold in front of him each time he took a step.

He had woken regularly from this dream only to close his eyes and return directly to it. He was unable to escape this place, that much he knew. Each time he began the walk across the desert the bakkie would pick him up. A group of large men in plaid trouser and golf shirts would drag him to back, beating him and punching him as they did. They would drag him and throw him in the vehicle and drive him back to the chalet. And there he would awake drenched in sweat. He could feel the painful blows the seemed to have landed on his body and he would look out at the snow falling outside and long to be free of this dry land without an ending.

One night he had woken up to his father’s voice: ‘Mi, ist thew ull de rite?’

‘Yis fater. Cin thoust stop thes min from beetin mee? Mi bodice iz panefol saw’.

‘Hiv soom waser.’

He drank and fell asleep again and returned to his village in the arid unending land.

Another night he had woken with a hand placed on this mouth. He had writhed and tried to scream, pulling at the hand that was smothering him. But the old mountaineer’s grip was strong and he was still too weak to wrestle it off. ‘Shhh mi kind.’ His father had placed his lips into his ear. ‘Thew talkst en tho sleep.’ He had come to his senses and as his thoughts became clear again he realized that he had one phrase swirling in his head ‘In the camps only are you free’. Perhaps he had spoken these New English words. It was hard to believe that he had. It was not his mother tongue. And he had learnt its subtleties only recently when he was up in the mountains with the others. Before they had been forced to scatter by the helicopters and the fear that even ‘the hearing’ was in the mountains’ stony crags..

Once a day the paladins would come to the chalet. They would enter his room with their bicorns stuffed under their arms and would ask him how he was feeling. He would lift himself up onto his elbows. ‘Mooch goeder,’ he replied to each of them as they stood there, looking deeply into his face. Some of his hearing had returned his mother had told them after rinsing his ears out with warmed olive oil. ‘Mooch goeder. Gracsious t’u,’ he would say and then lie back down again to rest.

The fact that they were there, the fact that they were repeatedly coming to the chalet, meant that he could never quite be sure whether he had spoken in his sleep. Each time they entered his small room at the back of the chalet he feared that they had come to drag him out, that they were there to place him in the bakkie. But they never did. Their faces never changed though, they seemed to be staring at him unblinkingly every minute that they were in the room. Even as he was resting with his eyes closed he could feel their stare burrowing into him searching for any outward sign. After some time they would leave his room. But they would not leave the house immediately. He could hear them sitting in the kitchen for some while afterwards, his mother making them a hot drink of burnt chicory.  There were no words spoken between them, there was only the movement of chairs and the clinking of the spoons on the tin cups as they stirred.

Chapter One

Chapter Three