The Reading Room

Other Writings
An Uninhabited Place
(from Reading Room)

For a long time we tried. We slow-danced in the living room and cooked candlelit dinners, sipped from each other’s wine glass, holding a few drops of sauvignon blanc under our tongues and kissing with lips of lemony wine. In our little bedroom with the candlelight flickering in the breeze you would pull off your shirt and unhook your bra and approach me with a sideways glance.

We walk among the animals, near the muddy Letaba River. The land is in the middle. Between sky and sea, hell and heaven, between us all. Lie on your stomach. Under the jackalberry and nyala trees. Whisper with the insects. Talk to the wildebeests and giraffes. They’ll tell you. The land, it’s above us and we’re underneath its thin palm, stretched across the continent like a sheet, an infinite blade of grass. All around it stretches out, dry and disconsolate: veld. The word is Afrikaans, it means empty space or uninhabited. And there we are: we walk between veld and veld.

Usually it was tender, and afterwards you would kiss me softly or lay your head on my chest. And maybe we would talk, of little things. Of our days at the office, what our bosses had done, a rumor overheard through cubicle walls, the budget I had to prepare, a design studio you were going to visit. Once you had the notion to buy new towels and we discussed colors and pattern or no pattern. Always there was an unspoken knowledge we shared, as simple as the wind through the window, the knowledge that we were working towards a common goal. And I thought of blue bootees and that sweet powdery baby smell, and you no doubt had your own visions of bassinets or little toes.

Look, a leopard. In the veld, all is camouflage. The movement of an animal is like a breeze, ripples in dry grass. I can’t see it—too small, its color too close to that of the parched brush. Our guide, a reedy Pondo man with long yellow teeth and darting eyes, sees it easily. He smiles and nods. Eh leh-pard. But I still can’t see it. We are near Skukuza, with the animals. Early mornings around the tired fire, ashes wandering into the dim daybreak sky. Strong coffee with sticky sweet condensed milk. Our guide carries only a knobkirrie. Not much protection in the wild brush, yet it is all he will carry. There, you point, it’s moving towards the Land Rover. But the guide laughs. Haikona, that is just the wind. The leh-pard, he is gone. I ask our guide what leopards look like. He says, Nervous.

We went to three doctors, saw pictures of your fundus uteri, tubes and ovaries, heard analyses of my sperm, ruled out endometriosis, talked about stress and heredity. Bending over the computer, we studied fertility Web sites, poring over treatments, scanning the stories of strangers for some stray piece of information, some secret we’d missed. We always went to the doctors together, always held hands and smiled bravely, always left with a reason to keep trying, sadly jubilant. And the wind that passed around the bars in the windows grew colder, though we still left the windows open. The air carried the smell of winter—steel, frost, grass, brittle trees. Leaves shivered dimly in the window. And then it had been a full year.

You came home tired after a long day at work. So did I. Just like so many other days, just like millions of other people around the world. I opened the windows, even though it was winter now. The wind will stay outside, I said, and we can lie in bed and listen to it. It’s warm in bed, I’ve taken off my clothes, Emma. Lie with me, touch me, cover me in your flesh and we’ll listen to the wind. You stretched and spread your flesh-soft skin. And I didn’t know whether it was hope or love or something else we felt, as we surrounded each other, between the cool clean sheets.

Close your eyes. Are we on this land, when we’re here in bed Emma? Are we in Africa, or is this house and this bed and our bodies floating free, roaming the landless life of the sky? Like the stars at night. So many years away, so far, and the land so close. The veld: it will endure acid rain, soil erosion, desertification. It will be here until the end of the end. After we are dust and stars.

Or that man sitting on a rusted office chair outside a shack in Tokoza township? Sucking a blade of grass. With a stick he is scratching the soil at his feet; it looks like he’s writing in the dry earth. Old Solomon. He used to work for my parents before his legs went stiff and his heart weak. Now he looks at the land. Does he see something more than just the land? He sits on his twenty-year-old office chair, not looking, waiting, listening to the wind and withered grass. What does the land mean to him? He has watched his children crawl about the veld and learn to walk, has watched two of them die. He has seen change sweep across the land, a new president and a new government, and now he is back there, watching the same land.

We wandered through the veld and drove in the Land Rover and watched. In the evenings light sprang from dry rocks and the sun sucked in the land. A tick bit me, probably that first day we went walking, our guide in front of us, beating back the bushes with his knobkirrie. By the time we returned home I had a fever; I was seeing yellow spots everywhere. First I was hot and then so cold I wanted to fold into myself. Tick-bite fever, and there’s no medicine for it. Just sweat and shiver and hope the yellow spears don’t burn. From a tick, the lowliest vassal of the veld. I sweated and shook and trembled with hallucinations of you, hovering above my bed and then cut by some devil lens into a million pieces and flung around the room; of my hands and arms breaking apart like porcelain, and dashed about in color rushing clouds; of swimming forever in an infinite sea, the water getting colder; of a hand pressing down on me, forcing me down, the yellow spears slicing skin from bone bloodlessly. It lasted three days.

Unlikely. That was the word the fourth doctor used. Afterwards, that night, or a week later, we lay in bed together. No candlelit dinner, no slow dancing in the pantry. I looked through the bars of the window at the dark trees and sky. We hugged each other until our hearts beat side by side, flesh against flesh, our bodies naked and small in the middle of the bed, and only then did you let yourself cry, quietly, your tears hot on my neck. And I couldn’t help thinking that maybe our child was out there, that he had floated through the open window into another Africa, and was running, flying, limbs touching the sky, in an uninhabited place.