The day closes in on itself, snapping shut like a purse. I've been playing in a dusty clearing between our home and the tall pine trees that guard the perimeter of our farm, but now it's time to hurry back to the house. It is still muggy. My clothes have stuck to my body—a second skin that slurps and spits as I run. My real skin prickles. Even more so as I skid to a halt at the back door.
Inside, my father says, his head cocked toward the kitchen. I walk into a long room I'll never like. Much later, I'll learn (in home economics) that it is set in a galley shape. Suited to bachelors and women with narrow hips.
Galley, like the ship. Gulley, passing through.
My mother is nowhere to be seen. Most likely she is sewing in her bedroom, foot pressing the black pedal that powers her furious machine. When I am older, she will teach me to follow McCall patterns and sew neat, carefully measured hems on frocks nobody has worn since the 1970s. I'll sew my thumb countless times before they're perfect, hand shoved under an open tap, dishtowel wrapped around it in a fright. But at the age of seven my thumbs are still intact.
The inside of the house is cold. A checkerboard floor fades into parquet my father laid himself, fifteen years ago when he built this house for my mother. Behind us looms the pine forest.
Filled with the night and her secrets.
I peel off my T-shirt, shorts and Pep-store panties, a colorful pile forming on top of the toilet seat. Down the passage are Dad's careful steps. By the time he is here I must be in the water, which he has already run. It is shallow, four fingers from the black plug and barely enough to bathe in. He will use a plastic jug to wet my hair and back. He doesn't like to waste.
My father enters the room belly-first as the bathwater becomes steam and my cheeks turn bright red. Liquid solid gas liquid solid gas. We'll learn about that in science class. In grade five, I think, when my hair is the longest of all the girls. When neither Paige Wilson nor Alana Pretorius has a ponytail like mine, and every girl wants to plait my hair in assembly. That's when the clapping games stop, when we are too old to play My Mother Your Mother and Black Shoe Black Shoe at break time.
Here are my father's hands, with the trimmed crescent nails. My mother's razor, with its three sharp blades and purple, plastic stem. He is tender at first, although thorough. Every evening he washes my hair so I don't get lice or those greasy stringy bits that stick to my forehead. He massages the shampoo into my scalp, careful not to let it run down my forehead and burn my eyes. After this, it's the rosemary rinse: brewed on the gas stove by my mother, strained, cooled and bottled in jars that she stores in a cupboard.
In another time my father might have been called set in his ways. He believes in femininity, in masculinity—the qualities occurring in the appropriate vessel. Pink, blue. In his world, men are men and girls are girls, something he celebrates with rituals, in a way I don't yet recognize as strange.
Memory lives in the bloodstream. Beginning as a single grain and accumulating in clotted formations. Seeking more of itself until it floats upstream and through the wall of the mouth, where it is absorbed by the gums and the tongue.
And like teeth, memory gnashes and chews.
A person with nice memories will say nice things and feel nice. A person with ugly memories will say ugly things and feel ugly. Sometimes these two things are mixed around.
Like enamel, it either shines or rots.
Every memory of my father is framed by his hands. Broad as a builder's, they deliberate over my belly, stroking and caressing in their careful, mapped-out way. Despite his size, he is gentle. His terrible softness defies definition, and for this reason, I do not realize that this is not normal.
Teeth that die must be plucked from the gum.
Isaac dips his gun into the black ink.
The tattooing booth isn't small but it has this tight, cramped feeling.
Isaac hardly blinks when I shed my bra. Not one to balk, not even when I demand two stylized teeth between my Marie Biscuit nipples, snarly vampire things that come down sharp on a person's arm. Incisors: the gnashers that rip and pierce. Last ones out your gums. The kind that are cut when you are worldly-wise, your precious seams mined for gold.
When he begins, it feels like someone is dragging their nails along a bad sunburn. I taste tinfoil and blood. I have a second skin that spits like an angry woman.
Whoever said that the self cannot be remade had never found herself in the chair of a tattoo artist. In each appointment I set myself a new landmark. I rearrange continents, divert rivers and reclaim stolen land. I dream up an image of myself I can recognize.
I got my first tattoo at the end of Matric. By then, the baths had stopped and my father had no idea what I was doing to my body. My body being my own was a foreign concept to me. Almost as foreign as the reflection I found in the mirror, sometimes as terrifying as a monster. There were times I stared at my own hands until I didn't recognize them anymore. As if they were suddenly dislocated, like a doll's hands screwed on the wrong way. Despite everything, my father was my safety blanket. I was as lost without him as I was lost in him.
It took me until my eighteenth year to figure out this process of reclamation, although I didn't see it like that then. I couldn't escape what had been done to me. And I could not survive being split down the middle. I didn't paint and I couldn't sing and there seemed no way of articulating my pain. I also really really wanted a tattoo. At the time it was Plett rage and everyone was hooking up. Being the only girl not to kiss a boy, I developed an even more intense self-loathing than ever. On the second last day, before my new friends and me poured vodka into Energade bottles for the City-to-City ride home, I caught a taxi to a tattoo parlor and requested a pine cone, outlined and then shaded in black. It sits in the hollow of my hip, which has since opened and blossomed.
I am considered womanly now.
Memory is a drop of rain. Inside, the whole world contained. The universe coming apart when it hits the ground, split between the moment it happens, when it is always happening. A question begs: what will you do? I answer with pigment. Send down my replies into my skin. A tap root, connecting to all others. I speak my past into my present, insert memory into my future. I am writing all my histories, an archive of skin.
Pine trees shoot towards the sky, bristling and shaking as if they were samba dancers. I trip over a pine cone and land with my hands splayed on a bed of pine needles. My knees quiver. My father strides ahead, unwavering, a knobkerrie in his right hand. As we walk on our property, I am acutely aware of both loving and fearing my father. It takes me years to articulate why this is not normal.
If you met him, you'd be charmed by his warmth, by the soft gleam in his hazel eyes and that boyish lisp (with a touch of his old Border accent). You'd recall how he helped with building the junior primary jungle gyms, and remember the boerie roll stand he manned every civvies day. How he made other children laugh, despite his insistence on manners (Please and Thank You, Sir). You'd brush off my mother's stammer; put it down to nerves or Change of Life. It would never cross your mind to think he could be awful.
I am an only child. Something to do with an operation and vodka bottles in the linen cupboard. Although I am yet to identify exactly what it was, there was a moment when it all turned, like milk curdling in December. It marked the beginning of the baths and our secret histories. There were snakes underneath our pillows. And outside, the loveliest little wagtail that would find its pitter-pattering immortalized in a trail across my belly.
It fell from its nest, possibly pushed, the eyes still closed and a soft, yellow mantle where its beak might have grown. My father holds it in a paper towel and sings softly to it. For ten minutes the bird breathes, its defiant chest puffing in and out, in and out, until finally it gives a last sigh and settles into stillness.
My father points out its translucent skin. Its downy feathers. He whispers that the chick is just a baby. I think of sea shells and skeletons and bed sheets.
The air feels heavy, clotted.
Just a baby.
My father asks me to hold the little creature, so he can dig a hole just outside the kitchen. After burying it, we watch the ants descend upon its grave.
Trees populated my childhood, walling my home and my heart. I never saw much of the sea. I distrusted it immensely. The endless waves, unforgiving tides. It might have been because I was never taught to swim and had this deathly fear of drowning. When I moved to the Atlantic, the coldest of oceans, lapping up the Cape as a cat would—its rough, salty tongue a bruise against the brick and rust of the seaboard—I planted a row of pine trees on my back, and let them grow.
I have his legs.
Wednesday legs; when they gonna break, I am asked at lunch time. Daddy Long Legs, they call me. I bite down on my lip. Blood. Today the heat is real. It produces sweat and patches in cotton clothes. I think of the pretend monsters that hide under children's beds.
Real monsters are not like that.
They do not hide under your bed.
My father mined the precious seams of my prepubescent body, finding what he wanted stored in the angularity of hip and chest. As a teenager I found the geography of it absurd. The way my limbs slotted together seemed suspicious but in a way that nobody else but me could recognize. The planes of my face and the slow dip of my belly and the variegated mound of my pubis lived in constant antagonism.
There were mornings when I could not get out of bed for the weight of my feet. Or for the pain in my head. Stomach at war with spleen. Wrist at war with ankle. Despite doctors finding very little wrong with me besides mild anxiety (20mg of Cipralex should do the trick), every movement hurt. As I entered my twenties, it became impossible to coordinate all of my unruly body parts. And when I woke up one morning without the will to live, I realized that I would need to be bolder if I were ever to regain the fluidity of movement that others experience.
I had to map new constellations.
Cut new teeth.
"I don't get it," my ex-girlfriend cries, wringing her hands. "After everything, how can you still talk to him? Love him?" She's gone now, but her refrain echoes my own. How do you love him how do you love him how do you love him? I have no answer and this orbits my every sexual encounter, taunting me until I am forced to answer with the silence of desire and the lie of my intimacy. I let women run their fingers along my back. Sometimes men, too, although their dipping is usually more toward, and never as sensual. But now it is my turn to perform an act of love; my chance to turn inwards and build a new lens through which to see my past. I am finding myself.
Isaac rests his arm on the cherries.
For a whole year, two red cherries mark my place on the mat, the hook for my anorak and a locker that holds my lunchbox and crayons. I stare at the laminated pictures during fruit time, until I am red and round just like the cherries, turning into the stony heart-meat inside each one. I become a cherry stone; I live in a world of sweet, syrupy flesh.
For the duration of 1995, I am Two Red Cherries.
That year, in Pre-Primary, Mrs Jones-Smyth teaches us a song about our bodies.
This is my body not your body, don't touch nobody but your own body. We sing it at break time, in the playground with the swings and the slide and the fireman's pole that presses hard into my fanny bone. I sing it in the pink girls' bathroom stall, panties around my ankles, my chin resting on my hands as I tinkle-tinkle, careful not to mess on the seat.
After break time, Mrs Jones-Smyth talks to us about Personal Space and Our Bodies and Privacy. If we are ever uncomfortable, she tells us, we are to Tell an Adult. We are to use our fingernails, if we must, and our teeth.
In our storybooks there are men in shining armor.
Who will slay my dragon?
We must be sure to tell Someone Responsible.
They'll never tell you why they do it. Tattoo artists. My first guy set up shop atop the butchery in Main Road: a tiled, bleached room that reeked of Dettol and Marlboro cigarettes, a stench that clung to the black and red dragon-motif curtains which he kept closed all day, and threw open at night (for the stars, yes, and for fresh air—the fan was broken). I sat in his chair for twenty hours—not in one go, of course, that's not how it works—but I let him run his ink into me for almost a day.
Between bad Metallica covers and MP3 recordings of the various bands he played bass for I asked him for the reasons why he felt compelled to drive color into human skin. I pleaded sometimes, but he never budged. Turns out he'd been fired from every other job he'd ever had (electrician's appy, trolley boy, bartender, SPCA volunteer) and this was all there was left. He had a steady hand and a stomach for blood and nobody to stop him. So he did it. He is responsible for the shittiest work anyone's ever done on me, but I love the thorny vine wound over vertebrae and muscle all the same.
Not much choice, permanence and all.
Truth is drowning in a two-fold betrayal: father, mother. The savage duplicity of my mother's mind. How not to gasp at the tragedy of her awareness? Disbelief replaces anger, anger returns, doubled. I remember shadow selves hidden in the forest. A man as tall as trees. Wondering if she would notice. Do you see me now?
One word: Mama. Above my ankle in simple, black script.
Ms Adams calls me to her desk. I am almost ten years old and in grade four at my third school in two years. Ms Adams has an inscrutable face. She is of the age that is indiscernible to young children. Draped across her desk is a bright yellow tablecloth with orange and turquoise daisies. A thick plastic sheet hangs over it, upon which a mechanized pencil sharpener, two mugs of pens, a board duster and page-a-day diary all vie for space. There is also a photo of her own child.
She says something about the nurse as I stare at the image.
I don't know why she wants me to go. I stop listening. My face grows red; I am absorbed by my socks. She is firm and marches me past the other grade four classrooms and the nun's chapel and then the choir room. Every pupil is at their desk, copying down sums or North South East West into exercise books their moms have covered. My own mother writes the name of each subject on blue and white labels which she peels off from a sheet. These she presses on the front cover of my notebooks, which are twice wrapped, embalmed in thick, plastic skins.
Ms Adams reaches for my hand and takes me upstairs to the nurse's station. Posters are presticked to the wall between the library and the nurse's room.
Wash Your Hands Before Every Meal.
CLEANLINESS before FRIENDLINESS.
Ms Adams tells the nurse that there have been questions. From other parents, she says, dropping her voice to something like concern. There are bruises, I hear her add.
"Ja, quite. Didn't want to say anything, but…ja. Seems odd."
I am called inside. I sit next to the nurse, on the bed, and stare at the white sheet tucked with geometric precision into the mattress.
They both ask me questions. I am prompted to explain.
The sleepover was Kendra's, I tell them. Last Saturday night. We played the Spice World video on her dad's big screen TV and fought over who was which Spice Girl. We decided it mostly depended on one's hair color—but Fezeka is black so she was obviously Scary Spice. We sang 2 Become 1 and Who Do You Think You Are and Mama into the microphone. The night smelled like braai meat and popcorn. We shared the bath three-to-one and blew bubbles and then we toweled off into nighties and button-up PJs and then everybody started whispering.
Someone phoned my mother but my father answered. That somehow made things worse.
The nurse smiles and holds my hand. She stands and the two swap positions to allow Ms Adams her turn. She enacts kindness. Duty. Her hands are rose-scented and lacquered in this pinky shade that reminds me of baby birds and budding flowers. Her palms are rough.
I hear her say:
school policy permission concern
if anyone is you can tell me
safety hurt must tell another adult hurt
but all I can think of is Carmen Small's Spice Girl shoes, with their unstoppable black and white platforms. They are perfect for squashing bugs. They add a foot to one's height measurement. There is no boy in our school as tall as a girl with Spice Girl shoes on her feet. Ginger Spice breaks her ankle but she is glorious in her wheelchair. We remember how tall she really is. We know the heights she'll reach. Spice Girl shoes pervade our dreams, the hours of our sleep framed by those monochrome laces and that tell-tale insignia on the heel. Carmen's mother bought hers on a business trip to PE, making Carmen the first girl in our grade to own a pair. In the toilets, I agree with Veneke Fray that Carmen Small is A Lucky Bitch. When we curse, I whip my hands across my mouth and gasp, but to Carmen's face I am the picture of amiable agreement.
In isiXhosa class, Carmen removes the shoes from her kitbag in the manner of a queen reaching for her crown. She passes around her precious contraband: sending first one shoe around the room, and then the other, bestowing her glorious footwear upon our Grade 4A class. This episode breeds a covetous streak in all the girls. In our ten-year-old worlds, nothing matters but these overpriced shoes. As class wears on, every student dreams of owning a pair. I dream of touching Carmen Small, of plaiting her hair and kissing her forehead and holding hands with her.
Of being her.
Now everybody owns a pair, everybody except me. My father deems them repulsive and my mother always listens to my father. It is 1998, and I do not own a pair of Spice Girl shoes. On civvies day I am forced to wear the rip-offs from Shoe City that cost a third of the price and are a third of their height.
I might as well cease to exist.
Carmen Small has no idea how lucky she is.
Four buttery daisies run the length of my left forearm, bright as sunlight, spindly as spider webs, or veins. Isaac didn't do those. He still tuts about the yellow, something about the shade sitting badly in my olive skin. I don't give a fuck because the flowers are not for him. None of them are for anyone but me alone, and ugliness has never frightened me.
He stops to wipe his brow and dips his gun in black again. I am eight years old. I am in grade two at Cedarwood Primary School. My friends are Zanne Phila Christine and Jaime and Mrs Cox is my favorite teacher. I like the color yellow and the flower daisies and the number seven and sometimes, when it doesn't seem so scary, I like to read about space. If I trust you, I'll whisper that my deepest secret is a belief in fairies living in the forest.
My mouth is sour because of the gooseberries and the thick Greek yogurt my mother has procured from our neighbor in exchange for honey from our hives. I pop open a berry with my teeth. I wince as the juice slides down my throat.
It is tart.
Bloody delicious, says my father.
BLOODY DELICIOUS! I shout. Then I see my father's face and the emotions drain away to nothing. I learn better than to curse in front of my parents.
Someone I knew very briefly once compared sitting for tattoos to a dentist's appointment.
"You have to psyche yourself up for it, you know? Like, they stick you with needles. And then, you're supposed to be, like, super stoked about the pain," she said, waving about her alabaster arms, wrung with ugly scripts that kept their stupid meaning secret from everyone who didn't read Latin. My back was done by then, inked and obscene, and I felt it necessary to set the record straight.
I probably shouldn't have smashed my Black Label over her head, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time, and it taught me a lot about rich girls and their lawyer parents.
Isaac has finished the outline. I hold my breath while he wipes away my blood with a cloth.
They are beautiful.
I feel a gnawing in my gums. My regulation navy panties are bunched around my bum. They are hideously uncomfortable, fitting too tight around the thigh, and yet every girl at Cedarwood Primary must wear them. There is Random Underwear Inspection at least once a month and it is Demerits & Detention for those caught with the wrong kind.
I've got a camel toe in the front and a wedgie in the back. A giggle escapes me when I think of the words camel toe and wed-gee. Camel-toooeee wedgeeeeee. I'm laughing about this, spit flecks flying out my mouth and snot streaming out my nose. I'm about to pull them out, but then I hear the unmistakable chug of Dad's Toyota Hilux.
My hand falls to my side.
Limp as crimplene.
I walk to the Kiss and Drop zone. My father unlocks the door from the inside, and I climb up into the bakkie. He buckles my seatbelt.
A flock of swallows brings rain to the arid planes of my thighs, the tanned desert above my knee. I used to pray for rain because it meant my father would have his hands full setting buckets out for all the leaks in the roof. I would be left alone to run the bath water as deep as my chest. I could use no soap at all, if I wished, and go to bed with unbrushed teeth.
This is not one of those nights.
The water has turned to a tepid soup of soap and dirt. My father is impatient, almost furious. He has rinsed my hair and scrubbed my fingernails, and yet he gnaws on something. Used to his quirks, I am quite still. Since I turned twelve, he has grown weary. He is unsure how to cope with me. What to do with this new hair, the new blood. I have a second skin that spits and slurps.
My father orders me out of the bath.
I towel off, and he leaves the room.
Twelve years later, a substantial portion of my body is tattooed despite ink not yet becoming mainstream. I am not quite fringe, but I am not welcome in the city either. Tattoos are all regarded as tramp stamps. Lower-class. Gaga. Care and energy are channeled into long-sleeve shirts and pairs of expensive cufflinks to deflect the human gaze. Nails are lacquered and diamonds procured and all other manner of cleansing rituals performed to delete the past attached to a tattoo.
When I wait tables, I find that older white women tend to inspect my fingernails for dirt. I catch them wishing they could take me home to rub me down with Jik and embalm me in clingwrap. Then they pass the salt and dab at their mouths with expensive cloth napkins I have spent six hours folding. Their husbands are no different. Between courses they picture me naked and being scrubbed in a bath. There are soap suds and pine cones and a skin that spits and slurps.
These men imagine peeling back my skin until there is nothing left of me.
May we have the bill please?
When Isaac has finished with the shading, he calls his partner to look. They haven't seen tattoos like mine. Pretty, they say. But dark. I walk out of that studio victorious, dancing along the street that has filled with car guards and businesswomen and students procuring caffeine and coke. I gallop up Pepper Road towards my car. Stop to tie my hair in a pony.
My skin is slick with Vaseline and sweat.
Night brings that itching pain, a thin membrane of Bepanthen and two dissolved painkillers drunk in one gulp. After an hour of restless sleep, I sit up in bed with a sudden desire to swim. I want to pinch myself or run very, very fast until I can't breathe and my chest burns and black closes in all around. I run my hand over the new, indelible skin, get out of bed, and walk over to my full-length mirror.
I lift up my nightie to wonder at my new tattoo, all blood lines and shade.
I had chosen this tattoo to give me courage. Teeth bite. When I was a child, I had a recurring dream in which all my teeth fell out of my mouth. They would crumble and disintegrate when I smiled, and I would scramble around the floor, frantically searching for splinters to glue back together.
In the mirror, my new ink teeth appear in the mouth of a smiling child and in the rays of light around the sun and in the pebbles on a beach. Teeth can be beautiful, but they are filled with purpose: they chomp and chew.
Skin is like a monster that slurps and spits.
I leave the mirror and lean against the cool wall. I think of everything that has brought me here. Pine cones and checkerboard tiles and nurses with eyes like FizzPop suckers; mouths with rows and rows of teeth. Sharp and terrible. Worldly-wise. I sink to the floor and run my hands over the cool tiles as a child might over beach sand; feeling for treasure and solid ground. The evidence of a past, promises of a future. With my eyes shut, I slide my hands between my legs and hold myself, tightly. There are the taps, there is the soap, there is the bath. Inescapable: the bougainvillea; blossoms and thorn blossoms and thorn.
My mother and father are twin streams that once flowed through my body. Their blood was my blood, the faint outline of jaw line and thigh, the inherited arch of foot, the serene planes of clavicles and scapulae all grouped together to paint this portrait of their progeny. When you gut a fish you will find that it bleeds as much as you do. This comes as no surprise to someone who often guts fish. But for a person who doesn't like the sea it is a shock. We are told many things when we are children and we are given specific names at birth. Part of growing up is learning which beliefs to hold on to and which names to answer to or ignore.
I bite into my inheritance and I spit out new forms.
I have limbs of flora and jade, a spine and back reforested. My legs are home to birdsong and rain. My ankles are dipped in inky night, and my wrists are to be read.
I am a store of reminiscence.
Where my limbs meet is a trunk of river and dale and a chest of sweet fruit. And in their reliquary center are two teeth I'll never lose. Kept like contraband behind my bra. I am always reminding myself that my tattoos are not mementos and this final one cements that. I cannot erase my past. Instead I sew myself to it, shadow to foot. These are my memories nestled between blood vessel and nerve.
This is the thing itself.
I may lose hours in the chair, but I gain lifetimes. Every artwork is a remapping, a reimagining, a reworking. And at their finishing, there is always this fission: I have been made new.
I am clean. I am clean.