White Dog Fell From the Sky

BOOK: White Dog Fell From the Sky
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ELEANOR MORSE
White Dog Fell from the Sky

FIG TREE
an imprint of
PENGUIN
BOOKS

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WHITE DOG FELL FROM THE SKY

Eleanor Morse has taught in adult education
programmes, in prisons and in university systems, both in Maine and in southern Africa.
She currently works as an adjunct faculty member with Spalding University’s MFA
writing programme in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.

for Catherine & Alan

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was …

—Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers”

1

The hearse pulled onto a scrubby track,
traveled several hundred feet, and stopped. The passenger door opened, followed by the
driver’s door. Two men stepped out. They walked to the rear door, and together the
men slid out a coffin and laid it carefully on the ground. They returned to the car,
struggled with something inside, and dragged out a limp body. It was so covered with
road dust, its face was gone.

The driver splashed a bucket of water over
it, nudged it with a toe. Rivulets ran down the side of one cheek, water etching through
dust to walnut-colored skin.

“He’s late, no more in this
world,” the passenger said.

The eyelids fluttered, and the driver said,
“See, you are wrong.” They stood a moment and watched the man on the ground.
Then they loaded the coffin back into the hearse and fled. There would be trouble when
the man came to. Or if he didn’t, there would also be trouble.

The sun was risen above the first line of
scrub when Isaac opened an eye. The light hurt. The hearse was gone, and with it the
small cardboard suitcase his brother Nthusi had given him. A wind blew close to the
ground, kicking up a fine dust, covering over the tracks. The dust would cover him too,
he thought without interest, if he lay there long enough.

A thin white dog sat next to him, like a
ghost. It frightened him when he turned his head and saw her. He was not expecting a
dog, especially not a dog of that sort. Normally he would have chased a strange dog
away. But there was no strength in his body. He could only lie on the ground. I am
already dead, he thought, and this is my
companion. When you die, you
are given a brother or a sister for your journey, and this creature is white so it can
be seen in the land of the dead. The white dog’s nose pointed away from him. From
time to time, her eyes looked sideways in his direction and looked away. Her ears were
back, her paws folded one over the other. She was a stately dog, a proper-acting
dog.

A cigarette wrapper tumbled across the
ground, stopped a moment, and blew on. A cream soda can lay under a stunted acacia, its
orange label faded almost to white. Seeing those things, he thought, I am not dead. You
would not be finding trash in the realm of the dead.

He heard a voice nearby, a woman calling to
a child, scolding. He sat up. No part of his body was unbruised. Which country was he
in? Had he made it over the border?

He called to the woman, but she didn’t
appear to hear him. She stood with a child near a makeshift dwelling made of cardboard,
propped up with a couple of wooden posts, with a roof of rusted iron and blue plastic
sheeting. She gripped her child tight around his upper arm, and with the other hand
splashed water from a large coffee tin. Her boy struggled and broke free, running so
fast that tiny droplets of water fell out behind him. “Moemedi!” she
cried.


Dumela, mma,
” Isaac
said in greeting, getting to his feet and wobbling toward her.

She eyed him. Clouds of dust rose as he
struck his pants with his hands. “Where am I? Which country am I in?”

She didn’t answer.

He stood silently, and then said,
“Please,
mma,
am I in Botswana?”


Ee, rra
.” Yes,
sir.

His palm traveled down the length of his
face, as though opening a curtain. His eyes filled with relief and with the fear of the
kilometers between him and his mother and brothers and sisters and all he’d known
and understood and embraced and finally escaped.

The woman must have seen the boy inside the
man, lost like a young goat in the desert. “Where is your mother?” she
asked.

“Pretoria.”

“Your father?”

“Johannesburg.”

“What are you doing here?”

He was unable to speak.

“Do you want tea?”


Ee, mma.
” He took a
step toward her and fell backward onto the dog. As he was going down, his eye caught the
soda can in the bushes. The sky had been blue, the dog white, but now the dog was blue
and the sky white.

“You are drunk.”

“No,
mma,
I’ve had
nothing to drink.”

“My husband is a jealous man. You
cannot stay here,” she said. Her body was already bent, even though her boy was
young, running, running with his friends among thorns and discarded tin cans. She
disappeared into the cardboard shack while Isaac sat on the ground with the white dog.
Long ago before he’d gone to school, he remembered his mother telling him that
there were oceans on Earth. She said that the water was so big, you could not see to the
land on the other side. She’d heard that the water threads connected to the moon,
so when the moon grew larger, the waters also grew larger, like an older brother sharing
food with a younger brother. But she didn’t know where the big water came from and
went back to. Maybe to the center of the Earth, she told him, where it can’t be
seen, flowing underneath. His head felt like that water, with the moon pulling on it,
the waters going back and forth.

The woman came back out of her house, with a
tin mug. She brought a small stool for him to sit on. He stretched out his hand
respectfully, right one reaching, left touching the right elbow. He bowed his head in
thanks.

She sat on a rock near him and studied his
face. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you hungry?”


Ee, mma.

She rose again and came back with a bowl of
sorghum porridge. She poured reconstituted powdered milk on it and gave him a spoon.
“Who hurt you?” she asked.

“No one.”

“Why are you not telling the
truth?”

“The journey hurt me. No one person. I
traveled out of South Africa in a compartment under a casket.”

“Surely not. But I did see a large car
travel up that track. I saw the men pull you out and throw you on the ground. When you
spoke to me, I thought if I do not speak, if I pretend I don’t see it, that thing
will return to the dead.”

He smiled.

“You did not have money for the
train?”

“The train was not possible.”
His friend Kopano passed in front of his eyes. Two men, wearing the uniform of the South
African Defense Force, walking toward a van, no hurry. The train disgorging steam beside
the platform. The conductor:
Get your dirty kaffir hands off.

It did not matter whether she believed him
or not. Now, the problem was not the journey that brought him here, but where to sleep
tonight and the night after. In the darkness, it is said that you must hold on to one
another by the robe. But where was the robe? He would need to leave here. He would thank
this woman and be gone.

“What is this place called?” he
asked the woman. Makeshift dwellings stretched as far as you could see.

“Naledi.”

From what can you not make a house? Oil
drums, grass, mud, sheets of torn plastic, tires, wooden vegetable crates, banged-up
doors ripped from cars and trucks. Each place was called home by someone, maybe ten
people, sleeping side by side on the floor, crawling out in daylight, when the sun is
drying the blades of short grass that the goats have not yet eaten, drying the leaves of
the acacia trees with its heat. For a few moments only, this Naledi would be wreathed in
morning mist. Would he be here tomorrow to see it? He put his hand out without thinking
and touched the fur of the dog.

“When did you come here?” he
asked the woman.

“It doesn’t matter when I came. The
government says they are going to knock down all the houses.”

“What will you do then?”


Ga ke itse.
” She
shrugged. I don’t know. “They’ll bring the bulldozers and knock the
houses down, and then the people will come back and build the houses again.” She
looked as though he should know these things. He watched her as she disappeared around
the other side of the house.

Outside Pretoria, where he’d lived,
the police came after the sun had set. You could hear people crying that they were
coming. In the darkness they ran. They jumped over fences and disappeared into the
night. There were no maps for where they went. They rose from their beds and climbed out
their windows, and each moment was a place they didn’t know and had never been.
With the sound of the police vans, thousands departed under the rags of darkness. His
mother didn’t have legal papers. She barricaded the door and hid under the bed and
told the children to be as still as stones. But the baby cried and the police knocked
the door down and they put his mother in prison for seventeen days. When she was gone,
there was no food except grass and stolen mealie meal. Their stomachs heaved and
sorrowed with emptiness. The bitter heart eats its owner, his mother said when she
returned. He didn’t know whether she was telling him that her heart had been
eaten, or that he must be careful not to let himself be eaten. After that, she sent her
young children, all but the baby, to live with her mother in the place the whites called
the homeland, which was nobody’s homeland, only a desolate place no one else
wanted. His mother had to stay in Pretoria, where there was work for her. She’d
told Isaac, as the second oldest, that he was not to cry for her, but sometimes when she
was gone and the wind had blown across the empty ground and drowned the sounds of the
night, he couldn’t help the feelings that rose in his throat and spilled out of
his eyes.

BOOK: White Dog Fell From the Sky
3.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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