Life Writing: Mountain of the Night by Jo Jackson
Image via APAL on flickr
‘Mountain of the Night’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Wasafiri New Writing Prize ‘Life Writing’ category.
‘Thaba-Bosiu, the Mountain of the Night, has a reputation that it grows higher during the night.’ — Antjie Krog, Begging to Be Black
The sign is still nailed to an oak: Brackenridge Cottage 497552. We added our Harare phone number in case someone driving along this lost mountain road might call and book the cottage out for a weekend. It isn’t even the phone number we had when we left Zimbabwe — it’s our when-I-was-born phone number, and it being there feels like touching the past. This is not just the place we left ten years ago. This place reaches far beyond that.
Pa revs the engine and the truck heaves over the rutted road where lichen grows on bald hard red. The oaks look a little sickly, but there are still acorn cups all over the ground. The kind that make the perfect crockery for tiny things.
We rise up over the apple and plum orchards on our right. They are overgrown with pine and wattle now. The gum trees tower over us on the hill to our left. Sentinels that whisper with the clouds. The stone cattle grates have been smashed into smaller and smaller pieces and I wonder who it was who ever had cattle here. The carcass of a mysterious tractor is sitting on piles of bricks on the side of the dirt road.
Crab apples on the right, old workshops on the left, and the chicken mesh gates wide open and waiting in the middle. Margaret is standing out front. She must have heard the truck rumbling from across the valley. When we get out to greet her she calls me Jojo like my grandmother Peggy used to. The soft affection of the name reaches out from the depths of time and says, “I was there when you were called that.’
Margaret breaks into a smile.
‘It’s very good that you’ve come.’
‘It has been very difficult. 2008, ah. It was hard. There was no food. We haven’t had ZESA for four years. Ja. Four years. There was a storm and lightning, and a fire started at the base of the transformer, but ZESA, they didn’t come. They don’t have any petrol to come.
The men who work for the Wattle Company went on strike. They set the forest on fire because they weren’t getting paid. It burnt right up the back of Baldy and now pine trees have come up on the mountain from the fire.
Look, here’s a letter. Two men came and gave it to me. They were ZANU PF. The letter is asking for money. They are collecting donations for the widows and widowers in the area. I must go to the meetings. Yes, it’s very important to go to the meetings. You know, I was born here, but now I’m being told I’m foreign. They are saying I must go back to Malawi. But we are comrades! The Sauriri family are comrades. The MDC are no better. They come driving their new cars to Mutare…
I don’t like politics. We don’t need politics here.
I live in Peg and Bas’s cottage now. Philip and his new wife are up in the old worker’s quarters. First they were in Room Three, but they wanted to cook the traditional way and they blackened the walls. They prefer living in the old quarters. When I was married to him I was very ill. The doctor said I had high blood pressure. He said I must get a divorce for my health. We are better friends than husband and wife. They have a boy now. Philip Junior.
The tractor belongs to Peter. He’s related to me. We Africans, we have tribes, like the hippos, the shumbas… Peter and I are from the same tribe. He comes from Mutare every day to do logging. It is good that he’s here. He is security for me and he keeps the place busy. People ask me, “Where is your boss? He has left you! He is not coming back!” I tell them, “Mr. Jackson was here last month.” They said you wouldn’t come back, but I said, “No, Mr. Jackson is not like that. He will come back.”
And you came! It is very good that you’ve come.’
Margaret leads us to the front door.
‘The house is in a very bad way,’ she says.
As I stand there on the rattling steel doormat I prepare myself for the place to be gutted. Missing roof and rain-soaked beds. Empty drawers and overturned tables.
We walk in. I don’t see the rotting ceiling board or the green moisture on the walls. I don’t see the cracks in the floor from tree roots or the peeling linoleum. All I see is our frozen life. Right beside the door there’s a row of coat hooks. My aunt Didy’s wide straw hat is hanging off one of them, exactly where she left it ten years ago. All the porcupine quills and pieces of mica we collected are still on the ledge above it. In the kitchen I see the burnt mouth of the hippo oven-glove and the old bottles of cloves and spices my grandmother bought before I was born. Pa finds the twin of a set of old stainless steel knives sitting in the bottom of a drawer. It has ten year’s less wear and tear on its blade than its brother that we took with us to our new life in France.
The beds are smooth with the same heavy blankets. The curtains have the same bouquet prints that I studied endlessly from my pillow. There is a magazine with Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton on the cover.
Pa sinks onto one of the dining room chairs. I join him and the familiar springs feel only slightly older. Fireplace ready to be lit. Vase of dried grasses, perfect blade for blade. I know Peg and Bas died when I was four. I know I’ve known Brackenridge more without them than with them, but everywhere I look I see things that they touched. Fabrics they wore thin. Objects they lived through.
From the stillness of the dining room we can hear the clean chatter of sunbirds in the ferns and flowers outside the open French windows and further off in the valley, the whooping sadness of a red chested cuckoo. Further still is the constant hush of the rivers.
I half expect someone to come in with soil under their nails or the thick oily perfume of everlasting flowers on their shoes, but there is no one. There has been no one… To fill our history with new life, to touch my grandparents’ things, to care for their memory. No one except Margaret — the woman who felt so far away she became an idea. And now her truth couldn’t be clearer. She has done the hard work. Survived on potatoes when there was nothing to eat. Been to the meetings we could never have gone to. She has guarded and preserved, and I’m greedily grateful.
Am I not allowed such a gift? Don’t my family and my history deserve a focal point? But who am I to ask Margaret to guard my symbol? What have I ever done for her besides bring mealie meal and candles?
The setting sun has stained the sky orange, making Baldy look darker and broader. The grass is already wet and cold underfoot, and Pa is tending to the old Jetmaster braai. There’s no gas or electricity. The house is already full of gloom. Out here the burning logs send sparks up over the roof. The trees have gone quiet with the coming night and white smoke rises up into the gum trees from where Philip and his new family are making dinner.
Pa’s silence pushes in on me, heavy as the night.
The last time I saw Pa weep was the day my sister went missing for a day in Bordeaux and came home with five iPhones. The family genes had crept up on Kate one year after getting to France. Just like my father’s brother, she had started believing in things that weren’t true. This time Kate believed we were all in danger and that we desperately needed to stay in contact.
We all gathered for the scene in the living room of our dark bottom-floor apartment. iPhones spread out on the coffee table – one for each member of the family – and Ma trying to establish the blow by blow account.
‘Where are the boxes? Where’s the receipt?’
‘I threw them away.’
‘In a dustbin in town somewhere.’
‘How much did it cost?’
‘Two thousand euros…’
Pa went to his room and I followed him there. I found him sitting on his office chair hunched in a position of agony. Elbows on knees, head in hands.
‘Is this it? Is this our lives?’
I sat down quietly on the bed.
‘How many times has she gone off the rails now? Is it going to be like this every fucking year for the rest of our lives?’
With that he let out a sob, his face contorted and red.
‘I can’t do this.’
Teardrops collected in pools on his glasses.
‘We should just leave her and be free.’
His body shook, mouth open and voice breaking with every sob. A string of saliva fell to the floor.
The bright buckshot of the Milky Way lights up the deep night. There isn’t a pinprick of manmade light anywhere over the black mountains or in the blacker valleys. We’ve left the logs to burn down low in the Jetmaster outside and our dirty dinner plates are exactly where we left them on the table.
I see Pa now, his hunched figure lit by the fireplace. There’s a lone candle on the table, fighting off the darkness of the house.
‘We’re so lucky it’s all still here,’ I say staring into the flames. The burning wood pops and sizzles.
‘What was I thinking?’ he asks quietly.
The hiss of resin is the sound of every night I’ve ever spent here.
‘It was madness to buy this place…’
‘But think about how happy Peg and Bas were here. This was the last decade of their life.’
He lets out a sigh and his moist eyes catch the light of the fire.
‘I can’t see your Ma and I here. We’d be so isolated. There’s no place for two old whities here.’
He stares darkly into the fire.
‘We’d probably get our throats slit in our beds…’
I look away and the depth of our story suddenly flattens out in the flat darkness beyond the windows. We’re just white faces and this is just another piece of land in a country where land is full of all kinds of wrongs. This place of ours seems more like a farm than ever.
‘Maybe I’m just a “passing through” kind of guy. Maybe we should just drop it. Drop the whole thing. No sale, no nothing. Just give it up.’
‘What if we could get it up and running again and have people stay and pay Margaret?’
He buries his face in his hands. The house hangs on our backs, invisible in the darkness, brooding beyond the candlelight. Pa digs his palms into his eyes to wipe away the tears. His voice is thin in the darkness, ‘I used to be the enthusiastic one about this place…’
We choose the two beds just off the dining room. We tell ourselves it’s more convenient; light from the fireplace and candles already lit. But the truth is we’re afraid of walking into the sadness of the empty house. Afraid to pull back the covers and warm the beds anywhere beyond the glow of the fire. Afraid to fill this space with anything less than everyone.
The mattress springs grit their teeth as I turn onto my side. Our beds form an L shape and the light from the fireplace is growing dimmer.
I’m so confused by Pa that I don’t want to talk to him. I can’t understand why he’d want to cut away from this place. Outside the window the leaves of Peggy’s wisteria are dark against the deep blue sky. I guess there’s nothing to tie you down to a place if you’re only passing through. Nothing to hurt you. I guess you only owe something to where you come from. Pa lets out a jagged sigh in the darkness and then I know. I know that this pain and this burden means that we belong.
Jo Jackson is a Zimbabwean-diaspora writer and multimedia creative with a particular interest in race relations, identity, belonging, mental health, and queer experience. She has lived, studied and worked all over Europe, where she became bilingual in French. She graduated with an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths University of London and was nominated for The Pat Kavanagh Award. She is now based in Cape Town, South Africa. [Photograph by Zeepix]