In the dream, Mariel felt as if she was hiking alone in the mountains. Something was said. Something was not said. An understanding passed between her and the mountains. She tramped on a twig, and a bird fluttered in front of her like thunder. It sounded like an alarm in the depths of the forest. And she felt her hidden sadness like a mirror, her reflection in a pool of water. She knew she was living in a fairy tale. Then she was in a room burying the castle. She looked through the keyhole. She thought of her laments, how she taught herself to breathe underwater. How her flat in adulthood, years after her mother had passed away, always felt like an autumn house. Leaves scattered on the floor at great risk. When she was younger, she heard her father crying in the bathroom. Her father's depression had annoyed her a great deal. She didn’t want to go in there. Didn’t want to, as they say, face the awful music. The scene was terrifying to her. She was just a child. She didn’t know how to cope, didn’t want to cope with the situation.
Her mother was lying on the bed, awake, smoking a cigarette, her hair held back from her face with a pink barrette and bobby pins, with the sheet over her face, pretending for her own sake that she could not hear him, either. Mariel stood there for a long while, outside their door, before going into her own bedroom to play New Order. Waiting for the reality of the music to cut into her own reality, she felt as if she was listening to the last words in the world, as if somehow her own world had come to an end. Her innocence too.
She later remembered how she had felt no sympathy and how, when she prayed in church, she felt like a robot calligrapher. She thought of the suddenness of the belief in God when she was baptised in the local swimming pool with her mother and father hovering in their late thirties. The day was pleasant. There were younger girls, prettier than she was. You could see they were popular and nice, not like the girls Mariel went to high school with. After the ritual, the three of them went straight home. They drove past Mariel's high school to their home, a modest one-story house which was some distance from the church.
Her mother drove the compact 4-door sedan. Her father looked at her sadly, and said, "Hallelujah, God is good!" He put his hand on his wife's knee affectionately, but she ignored them both. Just stared straight ahead, parked the car in the driveway, and went straight to the kitchen to smoke another cigarette, then make coffee in three mugs.
"My mug is chipped, Mother," Mariel murmured.
"Oh, rookie mistake," her mother answered breezily, blowing out the smoke from her cigarette. "What’s wrong with you? Find another mug yourself, then," her mother continued tersely. Mariel and her father just looked at each other. Her father tried to smile, shrugged his shoulders. Mariel felt like crying. She felt like throwing her arms up in the air in desperation, and yelling, "What the hell is the matter with the two of you? I want to be normal. I want a normal life. I want a normal father and a normal mother who love each other. I want to come home to normal. Not to have a banshee as mother, and a trick pony as a father." She began to have lucid dreams after that. After the baptism.
I am complex and reactive, the river seemed to say. I am detailed. Colour in my perspective, the sky said in return. I am layered like ice, said the ghost of the sunlight of the day that danced around her. "I believe I am repressed, that I am going in circles, that pain is the most normal feeling in the world," Mariel said in returning to the order and routine of the day. "The people we love the most push us far away!" she then said out loud to her reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Mariel moved out of her parents' house when she left for university. She thought of her mother’s breast cancer, years, how silence seemed to come upon her, how she never found the time to visit her father anymore after her mother’s death. She blamed him somehow. On the telephone, she would be pensive, and her father would be begging. That was her favourite part. "You could never be there for us" lay on the tip of her tongue. "You could never love us, mum and me, properly. Not the way she deserved to be loved. Not the way I needed to be loved. You left us before she left us. How did I get here, Dad? I want to know. When I thought I knew you so well? You didn’t even try."
"Not even once to get to know your own daughter." She’d have an imaginary barbecue with her dad, pretend conversations, long walks on the beach where they would just talk and talk. The dawn was already stale when the grownup Mariel decided to get up.
She thought of the wildflowers she had picked in the cemetery, how beautiful the day was. The mayonnaise from the potato salad on her father’s chin as he absentmindedly ate a ham sandwich in the church hall. All she could stomach was the split pea soup. People were always going on about how food was supposed to bring folks together in times of happiness and extreme sadness. She looked around her. Cousins she never grew up knowing had turned into young men and women. Uncles and aunts that had done a disappearing act on the three of them over the years feigned concern over Mariel and her father. "Your mother found God, never forget that, Mariel."
Her father had found her outside smoking a cigarette. "Can I bum one of those off you?"
"You don’t smoke, Dad."
"Well, it goes with the day, don’t you think? One won’t hurt. You shouldn’t be starting this, Mariel."
"Starting what?" Mariel snapped. Her father looked at her, that same look in his eyes the day she got baptised. She looked at him as well, blinking back the tears, and walked to her car.
"You’ll conceive. You’ll see, you'll live your own life," her mother had told her. Her mother had held Mariel’s hand at the hospital. She had looked closely at her mother, who was smiling at her in the bed in her pyjamas – thinner, paler, with no crown of hair.
"Look at me. Now, who would have thought I would have married, would have got out of Johannesburg, would have had a daughter? I was happy. I am happy, Mariel. And you?"
She smiled and said, "Yes, Mother, I’m happy too, but sad that we’re losing you."
She thought she was leaving her sorrows behind in the cemetery with the light of that day. She held onto her father’s arm as if she never wanted to let go. Drove them both to the church hall afterwards.
"Dad, put your safety belt on. Want to listen to Johnny Cash on the radio?"
Mariel got kissed on the cheek by male cousins and uncles that she had never seen before in her life. She got hugs from aunts with golden hair, who looked like her mother, then from her father, and telephone numbers were punched into cell phones. People promised to stay in touch and bring more food. Casserole dishes and bredies. "You need to eat at a time like this, dear," Mariel was told. You people need to have better tongues, Mariel thought to herself. Pack of wolves. One of the women was handing her father a napkin and a glass of iced tea.
"Come meet my sister," her father said.
Mariel shook her head. She felt rejected by the scene of the day. As day turned into evening, people still hovered. Cars and more cars. Foot traffic and more foot traffic. Neighbours asking her why she never said anything, asked for help when her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. They would have come. They would have offered to help. Relatives expressing surprise. Oh, her mother was just like her, never one to ask for anything, never one to ask for help. Not even when Mariel was a baby or when her husband had a brief stay in a mental hospital.
Mariel felt isolated, interloped upon, estranged from her family because of the way her mother chose to live her life. While observing her father speak calmly with the guests, she toyed with the idea of screaming at him, “Look at all these people and think about how many birthdays, gatherings, family functions we've both missed because of Mom!” Well, Mariel said nothing, silence being the only true manifestation of how proud she felt of being just like her mother, who guarded their privacy at all costs.
She went to the kitchen as the house emptied out and her father said his goodbyes to his family. She nibbled on a slice of apple crumble as the kettle boiled. Mariel's father was about to close the front door behind him when she suddenly put on her coat, grabbed her handbag, and kissed his cheek on the way out.