The call came deep in the night. Pa was away making good on his dream to stand on the roof of Africa. Occluded by ice. At the foot of the mountain a porter waited with a note. Nadia and Boetie slept while Ma steadied herself against her desk, alabaster and tall in her nightie like a young girl. Christiaan folded open Ma’s address book.
“It’s not true,” I whispered. “It’s not true.”
Christiaan made the first call to Oupa and Ouma. His words were apostate to mine in the dark dry September night. No lightning. No rain. Clarion lines.
Ma wanted to burn him. “I will go to England and fetch his ashes.” I walked up to Ma and took her by the shoulders. “No. You will not burn him. You will bring him home.”
Time flies and time stands still. We pass through time. She is not swayed by us. The vlei spills into the pan. A moorhen glides. Willows drop braids into water. Buried flowers in the darkened garden strain against the soil.
By sunrise all the women from the stat were sweeping and cleaning around the house. They had come unbidden. Ma stood by the window watching them. Martha edged her upstairs to change.
The protocol of solace marked the hours.
Food was brought. Flowers were sent. People came from all over. Family. Neighbours. Those from town who had not come to our house for many years. The dominee. The priest. The police. Ishmael Mabitle’s brother. Wolwefontein’s people. Pa’s family from the Southern Free State. Terror Lekota, who had lost his daughter the year before, with his bodyguards. Terror held Ma. Dudu gathered herself across airports of the North to be where Paul no longer was. Eunice bought herself a bus ticket. Stompie Lekgetha walked all the way from the township at eighty-three, crooked with arthritis. She who used to warn us not to climb trees because we would break. We used to laugh at her broken sentences. Paul’s old friends who could not take it any more. The other ones. There to stake a claim.
When Pa returned from Mount Kilimanjaro Adi fetched Pa from the airport and drove him to the farm. We waited for them in the driveway. A tracery of green on apricot branches. The flocking of quealeas into cindery hedges. Adi helped Pa into the house. He turned to Adi and said, “Thank you, my son.”
They sent Paul’s body back in a casket. The closest depot for the dead was in Klerksdorp. A mining town forged from unforgiving seams, by the end of winter a desultory vacant lot of dust and scrap metal. Pa and I drove to the mortuary to identify the body. Dudu came with. Horses huddled behind sagging fences, facing the still-distant sun. On the outskirts of the township were rows upon rows of freshly dug graves. “Look, Pappa, someone has put up crosses.” He put his hand on my arm. “Those are frames for road signs still to come.” Doves were racing us as pale grey as the midday.
Abel and Mary Dlamini stood outside the mortuary. Abel held a Bible to his chest and Pa went into Mary’s arms. That was the only time he cried. The mortician hovered with his pen and documents. Mary was pleased with Dudu. “She would have been a good wife for our Paul.”
We were taken inside. Bodies lay on makeshift catafalques. Paul’s hair had been combed into a middle parting. Dudu ran out.
“Please do something to his hair,” Pa said.
I knelt down. I ruffled my hand through his soft hair. Beautiful and healthy he lay under his death mask. Shoes laced up for walking. I undid the buttons on his shirt. There was stitching where they had cut him open. I lay my head on his silent chest. I kissed his cold cheekbones. I stroked his eyelids. Underneath, irises once bloomed in the water of life.
“Come, we must go,” Pa said.
“No, Pa. We’re taking him home.”
I spoke to the undertaker. After the soft organs are taken out, a body is sewn closed and embalmed. The rot is removed. The smell of decay deferred. “Perhaps,” he suggested softly, “it would be better if we brought him in the hearse tomorrow. It’s already been paid for.”
“We will take him now, thank you.”
The mortician nodded heavily amidst the piped dirges and drapery. They gave us his satchel marked Paul Michiel Botha the 6th. Inside was a spoon, elastic bands and a pocket Gideon Bible bound in green leather. Also some pencils, a paint chart and a syringe. We carried him to the Landrover in his pine coffin. The cheapest one on offer. That’s what Ma wanted. To be frugal. To be exemplary. To show the farm staff: don’t waste money on the dead.
Dudu and I locked arms to keep the coffin in place. The nylon rope handles chafed. At the farm gate, Pa got out, took off his cap and stared down at the vlei. The initiation hut of last winter was mouldering into its woven grass foundations. Women were forbidden to go there.
Pa walked round to where Dudu was sitting and cleared his throat. “Paul wrote to me about this wonderful young woman for whom he wanted to change his life. I want you to know how grateful I am that he could end his life on such a high note of hope.” He put his cap back on, got into the driver’s seat and cursed the starter engine for failing.
At the house they waited for us. Vygie, Selina, Martha, Mad Magdaleen, Eunice. Oupa with the wild birds on his shoulder. Nadia like a frightened foal in a forest of lost adults. Christiaan, Cardow, Adi and Fritz carried the coffin into the sitting room reserved for special occasions. They laid him out on the brass-buttoned coffee table that Oupa Bob made for Ma’s birthday years ago. Eunice was angry about the coffin. She said Paul deserved better. When the lid was lifted, the women wailed. Boetie and Firi were playing outside. They stopped. They started again. Christiaan fetched whiskey. No one drank. Ma whispered to me, “I am not going to cry at the funeral tomorrow because I want Paul to be proud of me.”
Outside small cloud shoals were forming. The season was turning.