Carrion for a day

“You’re going ahead with the townhouses?” Miriam asks. She lifts her nose to the faint taint of decay in the air, closing her eyes as if to brace herself.

“The City has approved the plans. If I don’t build here, someone else will,” Antonie Dirkser says. The wheat- and winelands below and the remnant renosterveld around them are reflected in his aviator sunglasses; the sun glints off the metal segments of his watch.

Miriam struggles for a hold in her mindscape. The bullet that was meant to kill her had left furrows of vagueness in her memory, and ended her career. What she remembers is as wide as a scattering of seeds after an uncontrolled burn in the Cape southeaster.

The heat shimmering off the white-grey rocks directs her thoughts to the event that had awakened in her a fascination with the plants and their pollinators of the fynbos region of the Western Cape and propelled her towards heading the Threatened Species Programme.

It was the day her brother had pinned her against a granite outcrop and held the Starfish Iris under her nose. Her father had explained the rarity of the plants in the reserve and forbade them any destruction, but by some involuntary compulsion her brother just had to pluck a flower.

“If you tell on me, I’ll put this carrion flower under your pillow and the insects will come,” her brother had said, waving the flower under her nose.  “And they’ll crawl up your nose and into your brain and lay eggs.”

The flowers of the Starfish Iris last only for one day, she later found out, and it smells of death, as she found out that day. Stinking is a decidedly inelegant but necessary function for the flower, its subdued colours and frilly frocks not enough to attract a brisk trade in pollination.

At this one clear memory, Miriam automatically searches for any sign of plant or insect life around her. She crouches and carefully tips a rock to see if she can spot a rare beetle.

“I suppose nothing I say can change your mind …” she says.

“Construction starts in two months,” Antonie says. “The investors want results asap. No-one can stop it now.” His voice rings cold in the simmering sun.

Corridors of realization open to connect memories in Miriam’s mind. The hijacker. The balaclava. The gun. That voice. She feels sweat prickling her neck and the sharp edges of the rock in her hand, and she comes up swinging. She hears the keening of cicadas as his skull cracks.

Miriam surveys the granite tips of the surviving renosterveld sticking out of the turned fields like calcified teats.  The ploughed lines surround the hilltops so clinically that they resemble a Zen garden; the undulating sand raked bare of all natural growth.

“If it smells like death, the insects will come,” she says. “You said so yourself.”

© Sara P. Dias

June 2012 (Word count: 487)

Which Way the Wind

The Persian’s nose lifts and twitches in the southeaster to follow ground-coffee notes with overtones of burnt toast for two, and then it catches a whiff of egg and bacon for one.  Along the dips and hills of an old sofa it senses the musky coat of an Irish wolfhound.  A lull in the air is heavy with cinnamon and oats, the sting of nail polish, apricot hair, Chanel N°5, and a milky bib.  Old Spice, a dry-cleaned suit, and shoe polish on new leather precede the choking exhaust from a Mercedes and the first cigarette of the morning.

Again it sniffs as the breeze changes direction to bring the fatty smell of Sunlight brick soap, the heavy breath of a child, sewage-leaking puddles, and the aroma of food reaching the end of a long queue.  The exhaust fumes complement lighter fuel and dagga, overpowering the mustiness of rain-soaked mattresses baking in tin shacks.  The iron smell of blood on a knife and heat bouncing off corrugated iron roofs become confused in the piercing paraffin bite of a burnt-out shack, and the cat opens its mouth slightly to taste the air better, detects only the familiar, then decides to take a nap.

© Sara P. Dias 2010

[ First published in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Vol. 4 No.1, April 2011. ]

Saffron Earth

Overnight mist had moved the mountains so that Veronique wakes to find the landscape, and sentiments, rearranged: multi-coloured marquees exuberantly clash in the village square where yesterday blood stained saffron soil.

By the time Veronique unfolds from the rubble, dried blood and salt have mixed with days of dirt to alter the soft planes of her face into an unrecognisable mask.  Bewildered, she mingles with dust-daubed men, women and children, forming a disorderly parade of fearsome faces into the village centre.

Milling among the frayed and wounded strut yesterday’s soldiers, slapping one another on the back in loud merriment and congratulatory phrase, today calling each other son, brother, father, uncle.

She spots a familiar face.  Uncle Louis, whom she hasn’t seen since he had joined the rebels, has set out boxes marked ‘Memorabilia’ under a cheerful canvas, filled with used knickknacks, shirts, scarves, rings and bangles, and other bits representing various lives.

Almost whispering, Veronique asks, ‘Why would anyone buy this?’

Uncle Louis throws his arms wide and proclaims loudly, ‘To remember the struggle!  To celebrate our victory!’ and he dangles a silver locket in front of Veronique’s face, as if attempting to hypnotize her.

‘But where did all this come from?’  Veronique’s body vibrates with the trembling canopies in the wind and, knowing the answer, she asks, ‘And that necklace?’  Her voice is fragile, untethered.

Uncle Louis sighs, drops the locket in Veronique’s hand and waves her away.  ‘Your mother wouldn’t tell us where your father was hiding.  Your sister Janelle tried to stop us …’

‘But Uncle, what about me?  Am I also the enemy?’

Uncle Louis has already turned away.  ‘You’re lucky!  Yesterday we were at war …  Today, it’s peacetime!’

Streams of people, the masked and the merry, pass by Uncle Louis’s stall, averting their eyes.

As dusk falls, mist coils between the empty stalls, absorbing all colour and substance.  Veronique furls herself into hiding and waits for dawn.

© Sara P. Dias 2010

[ First published in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Vol. 4 No.1, April 2011. ]

Mother Imperfect

She wakes up, sticky with the glue of dreams, which she tries to remember, but unconnected snapshots peel off from the inside of her skull to float, one by one, into the lost spaces under her bed.

As her eyelids become unstuck and crack open, her cat comes into focus as a pixelated pile of bright orange fur. She automatically reaches out for the soft, warm comfort and is rewarded with a deep and steady purr.

Beyond the cat, on the other side of the bed, there is no one.

She takes a heavy breath, feeling the weight of living and wanting on her chest, the exhaustion pressing down on her limbs, so that it is with great effort that she gets up to loosen the mooring lines attached to the moon, floating it to the attic ceiling.

In the kitchen she percolates her dreams and pours them into a cup, adding two spoons of sugar to negate the bitter black. She ropes in the low sun and centres it in the pan, herding the yolk to embrace it. Carefully, she places the radiating orange disk on a toasted wholegrain base.

She takes a deep breath, and at the beginning of a sigh, she bellows: “Wakey, wakeeeey! You’ll be late for school!”

Amid the squeals and moans, she weaves around Jane and John their protective clothing. She seals two cups of cherry custard for their lunch, to sweeten her acid fear, and stuffs their schoolbags with sections of her heart.

As the conveyer belt outside their home streams the kids to school, she waves, turns, closes the door, pours the sun down the sink, pulls the moon from attic, and in the wan light the couch and the waiting cat receive her remembered shape.

She sets her timer for the moment the children come home, and switches herself off.

© Sara P. Dias

[First published in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Vol.2 No.2, October 2009.]

The Weight of Emptiness

Amid the melodic drip-drip-plinks of rain, piano keys and breezy violin sighs of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, Leah hugs her wrap tightly around still objects, the unoccupied sofa, an empty vase, the blank pages of a note-book weighed down by the yellowed “Dear Leah, …” letter, and the box of photographs.

In the pauses the deeper notes, ponderously attempting to rise, remind her to breathe, then a new note falls, displacing the after-image of the previous memory. She drags on a cigarette, mindful of the slow and grinding inner decay, obeying her particular laws of self-destruction.

Who will remember me? Who will inherit these photographs? Who will want to look at them? Shall I scan them and post them on my blog, or shall I solicit smiley faces on Facebook? Or Flickr? Why leave anything behind?

She looks through the old photographs. She separates the more flattering ones of herself from the really bad hairstyles and the silly poses.

Is this all I can leave behind: The bell-bottoms, the Farah Fawcett hair style that became fashionable again thirty years later, and the long stride of young invincibility?

And who will continue to speak in this language of shallow breaths and sighs? Who will know the giggle here, the innocence, ignorance, naïveté there?

Who will remember the day of mist so close to blinding us on the Soutpansberg hiking trail, or how much we laughed at the discovery of an outhouse, somewhere in Gazankulu: the only solid structure among the ruins of a house and its outbuildings, built at the edge of a cliff to afford the sitter a magnificent view of the valley below?

Who will shoulder my anger? Who will remember what I choose to forget? My grandfather’s run-down rented house on an ugly industrial site: man, wife, children and sparse surfaces all smelling of the same waxy green-bricked Sunlight soap.

Of her father there is no memory, no after-image, just another ill-defined pressure against her ribs.

What use to others the knowledge of this man’s addictions, that one’s infidelities, that cousin’s adultery, that child’s purple bicycle on which she took off the skin on her knees?

She chooses a clutch of photographs to represent the significant moments in her life, and writes on the back of each the names of those present, the year, the location, and sensations absent from the pictures: the strong winds pulling at the chain ladder in the Drakensberg; the cold slicing undiminished through jacket and jugular in the Klein Karoo emptiness; the stink of a bad perm in the eighties; blood colouring her face in memory of a morning after, naming those she pushed away in her helpless rage; and serial-hugging her cats in an attempt to imprint that intense love for all eternity.

The photos remain unresponsive – flat and mute – merely indicating a broad smile holding someone else’s infant or a tenderness accommodating a cat on her lap. Here and there the radiance of naïve happiness, vulnerability, and in the more recent photos, the sorrowful stare and new bumps to give the face more plains, more doughy shapes and folds to sag the jaw line.

What is the point if they can’t smell the piss and decay in lower Woodstock, or choke on the dusty absence of running water and electricity in Khayelitsha? They can’t feel the heat waves mimicking the burning undulations of corrugated roofs and despair on the Cape Flats.

It is the biting mental snaps, for which there are no tactile reminders, that had flash-deformed her mind: The uninvited hands of an alcoholic colleague on her breasts where she stood in front of a photocopy machine in a passage at work; for him just a brief impulsive moment; for Leah a lifetime of resentment and hopeless rage. Over the years similar incidents became, collectively, a dense black pit seeding only helpless fury and fear.


In the end she planned it well: The year she turned seventy-seven, when she felt strong enough to discard memories, she took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and while she stood swaying in the wind, she cast into the lively southeaster all her annotated photographs, feeling the loss in tiny stabs, smells, colours, smiles, adventure, misty mornings in the wine valley … the wind shredding her mindscape.
But she remained woman. She closed the lid on the undefined aches left behind and walked back to the cable car. Lifted and tilted by the empty weight of the shoebox and the striving wind, her breath came in deep, panoramic gulps.


Sara P. Dias

(First published in Itch e.07, November 2010)