Writings / Fiction


Dawn Promislow

I was born in the year 1969 in a room with a sand floor and corrugated iron walls. My mother told me I tumbled out of her, crying and bloody, with the help of her mother, my grandmother. My mother was eighteen years old.

The sand floor I remember, because when I was older I used to sit on the sand, and draw lines in it with a stick. Sometimes I would draw the shape of cow – the cow who had stopped giving milk one day, and died. Other times I would draw a circle, shaped like the sun that beat down on us all day, and dried up all the water in the stream that flowed nearby. Other times I drew my mother’s face. She had a skin smooth as the rounded stone that I kept in my pocket. I had found the stone while I was playing in the dried-up stream bed. But I never drew my mother’s face with a smile. Sometimes my mother had tears that trickled slowly down her cheeks. Her tears, though, didn’t come so much any more – they had dried up, too.

I remember the tin walls of our house, because they creaked and sighed in the heat. Sometimes you couldn’t touch them, they were so hot from the sun. Once, the big rains came – the rains we had waited for, for so long. We heard the rain beating, beating on the tin walls, like a drum. I was afraid of that, and I was crying, while my mother held me to her chest. They leaked too, the tin walls, that time. Water gushed through the sides, until the sand floor was wet and muddy. My mother laughed, because she was so happy the rains had come at last.

At night, I lay next to my mother under our blanket. My mother’s body was thin. She was as thin as a bird. She had fed me milk from her breasts when I was born, but that milk had dried up too. I heard her telling my grandmother that, many times. I have no milk, I have no milk, she said. Her tears would fall, when she told my grandmother that.

But under our blanket, my mother would tell me stories. Stories about her, and about our tribe, which was all broken now, about the Relocation, and about me. Her stories, unlike the stream and her milk, never dried up. They flowed always in her, as fluid and abundant as the most fertile river.

She told me about the rolling green hills where she was born. How there was water flowing there, in the rivers, in the streams. How the cows were fat, and their udders filled with milk. She sang me songs from that time, that would send me to sleep.

During the long hot days, my mother and grandmother would sit on the ground outside. Sometimes they turned our tin buckets over, and sat on those. My grandmother would gather sticks for a fire – clambering in the stream-bed - while my mother sat, often, doing nothing at all. She would be watching the distant horizon, which moved, a little, in the heat. I would sit in the sand, in the dust, drawing shapes with my stick. Sometimes I would chase the scrawny chicken that pecked in our yard. She didn’t care much – the chicken - anyway.

One day my father came. He came walking along the dust road that led from the horizon. He was a tall man, and he walked slowly, because he was tired, and he had come very far. He worked in the white man’s city, far away, my mother told me, so that he could send money to us for food. But not much money came mostly, and not much food.

On the day after my father came, my mother got me ready. She whispered in my ear, be good, boy, be good. You will come back soon. I was to go back with him, to the white man’s place where he worked. With a laugh, he put me up on his shoulders. I was high up, above everything. The scrawny chicken pecked away far below. I saw my grandmother’s face, upturned, her skin folded and wrinkled like an old sack. She was smiling at me, happy that I was to go somewhere, somewhere with my father, my father strong and good. He would take care of me, she knew that.

We set off along the dusty road, my father and I, with me on his shoulders. We walked many hours this way, until we reached another road – a tarred road this time, not a dirt road any more. There were cars on this road, that roared by, now and then.

At a place next to the road we stood for a long time, waiting for the bus. I was very tired now, and sat down on the dirt at my father’s feet. But my father had to stay standing, in case the bus came in a roar and didn’t see him, after all. When the bus came, and my father picked me up, I could feel his rough shirt on my cheek.

My father had with him a flask of water, on our journey. He didn’t drink any though, he only gave sips to me. He had a dry piece of bread my mother had wrapped in one of her cloths, but I couldn’t eat that. I didn’t eat much, in those days. My stomach was very small, and not strong, and not used to much food.

I don’t remember the rest of the journey, but I know there was a train that took us to Johannesburg. I remember waking up in a small dark room that did not have tin walls. There was no creaking sound of the tin in the sun, and I didn’t hear the chicken scrabbling in the dust, as I did when I woke up in the mornings at home. My father was sitting in a chair, looking at me. He was smiling, a little.

Come, they want to meet you. Come, come, he said.

Later I sat on a chair at a giant table, and there were many voices around me, and the large white faces of children with brown hair. They were smiling and laughing, these children. They touched me, even. Billy! They said. Billy! They spoke many words in a tongue I had never heard. My father explained to me: your name here, in Johannesburg, is Billy. Billy. Do you see? He laughed too. I didn’t laugh. I had a name already, a name my mother had given me. My father told me he had a new name in Johannesburg too, not his old name, any more. That’s how it worked with names in Johannesburg, he said.

In the mornings, when the children went to school, I would sit in the kitchen while Leah, the cook, and my father drank tea and ate their bread. Leah spoke our language too, so I could understand them talking, this time. They tried to make me eat, but my stomach was still hard and tight, and I couldn’t eat much.

In the afternoons, the children came home, and I would hear them calling Billy, Billy, through the house. I had been waiting for them, sitting at the kitchen table while Leah worked. I went with the children, and we played. We played chasing games, like I used to try and play with the chicken at home. But I didn’t have a stick to draw shapes in the sand with, and I missed that. There was no sand there, in any case, at the house in Johannesburg. There was green grass only, and many, many trees. There was a bright blue pool of water that I kept far away from, out of fear. The children laughed when I hid behind the trees, away from the water.

I missed my mother, too, and her stories at night. At night in Johannesburg I watched my father’s cigarette glow red in the dark, in his room. I listened to his radio which had voices that rose and fell, from far away. Sometimes they were arguing, the voices, and sometimes they were laughing. And sometimes they were talking, about things I had never heard of.

After many weeks, the time came for my father to take me back home. We travelled the same long journey, but going the other way this time. This time we had soft, fresh bread with us, wrapped in shiny silver paper, and the bread was filled with things I had learned to eat, at the house in Johannesburg. Peanut butter, and cheese. I had milk to drink, too, in a jug with a lid.

My father carried many heavy packages on our journey home. He had to stop every while, and put the packages down, and rest his arms. The packages were filled with things for my mother to cook on our fire: maize flour, and rice. My mother – running towards us - cried many tears when she saw me and my father and the packages coming along the brown, dusty road. Those were tears of happiness, though.

The day after my father had brought me and the packages, he went back again, back to his work in Johannesburg. And after that, other packages of flour and rice would come for us. My mother and I would walk along the road and travel the long bus ride, to the post office near the train station, to pick the packages up. They were wrapped in brown paper and sometimes they had string tied around them, to keep everything tightly inside. We would take them, and carry them home with us, to the house and to my grandmother. My grandmother would always be waiting for the packages, with her face creased into smiles.
I had some schooling, at the house behind the post office. It wasn’t too much schooling. It was very far, the school, and some days my mother was too tired to take me on the long walk, and the bus ride. Other days we would get there and the school was closed. The teacher himself couldn’t get there on those days. That’s what my mother told me. We would sit on the wooden doorstep, then, and rest in the sun, before setting off home again. I would stand on a crate, and look in the schoolhouse window. I’d see the blackboard, dusty with chalk. There were yesterday’s lessons on the board. I would read the lessons through the window. And then I would read them again. I saw the wooden tables in a row. The row wasn’t straight, and sometimes a chair was overturned. I yearned to straighten the chair, to sit in it. A line of sunlight fell across the tables. The line moved – so slowly – as I watched.

It was many more years, and I was seventeen years old, before I went to the big city again. Then I, like my father before me, was setting off to seek my fortune. Well, I was looking for work in Johannesburg, was what it was.

It is 1995 now. You know that of course. My mother died last year. We buried her in the dry earth where she lived most of her life. That is what she wanted. It is strange, but there was a beating, pouring rain on the day we carried the plain wooden box to the hole in the ground, to bury her. The brown water ran and gushed in the furrows, and our spades dug into brown mud as we filled her grave.

She used to say – shaking her head - that it was a wonder I had grown up, after all. A wonder, she said. My father would joke that it was the packages of maize flour at the post office in Bethal that did it. She would laugh a little when he said that. But then she would reprimand him, with a click of her tongue, for making jokes. It’s not a matter for jokes. Not a matter for jokes, she said.

I live nowadays with my girlfriend in a flat in Jo’burg. She calls me Makandiso, as you do, which is the name my mother gave me when I was born. I do my work in a room of my own, in our flat. The room has a wide window. I can look out and see the pale sky. I start working soon after my girlfriend has gone off to her job. After we embrace, and I can still smell her fragrance, and I can still feel her soft skin against mine. I drink my tea, and I look out of my window, at the morning sun that comes as surely as anything. I have my easel that waits, with a canvas quite blank. I gather my materials. And I start.

I am an artist. I sell paintings and drawings, that I have made. I have a real pencil now, not a stick anymore. And I draw on paper, or on canvas, not on sand anymore. I draw all sorts of things. I draw the stories my mother told me, when she sang me to sleep in our house. I draw pictures of wide, rolling plains, and hills covered with long grass. I draw huts in a circle, and cooking fires, and the lowing cows. I draw songs, also, and laughter and smiles. But I draw darkness, too – the Relocation - our tin house on the farm. My mother’s face with no smile, her mouth a straight line.

And I draw the present, where I live now. I draw in colours, many colours. I draw faces, many people’s faces – the faces of people in the great and liberated city where I live. It is my city – our city - now. But you know that too.

About The Author


Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has lived in Toronto since 1987 where she works in magazine journalism. Her story "Billy" was shortlisted for UK-based Wasafiri's New Writing Prize 2009. Her collection "Jewels and other stories" will be published in the fall of 2010.

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