She was wearing, today, a blue dress. It might once have been a pale blue dress, but now it is a faded blue dress, not much pale in it, just faded, which is something quite different. Her eyes, too, are blue, but a bright blue. They’ve not faded at all. She’s about sixty years old. I should know exactly how old she is, but I do not. She told me she was born sometime around 1950, but that’s all she’ll say.
The sunlight struck her eyes at once. And then she set off along the street. I – I followed. She does this every day, and I – usually – I follow. She has a strange gait, a little lopsided. She walks on the curb, along the curving walls. It’s a familiar, winding walk, before she gets home: streets and streets, alleyways and alleyways. A bright sun lies on the yellowing walls, and deep shadows alongside. It’s five o’clock, and the shadows deepen and deepen. I walk behind her now, wordless.
She walks, it seems to me, with a hesitancy today. A tentativeness. I saw a movie, once. The camera followed a little girl winding through a crowd; she wore a red coat. I have a feeling, today, that she of the pale blue dress – the faded blue dress – is a little girl, and I, the movie camera. I follow; I follow. There’s even a whimsy to her gait, this day. I can’t account for it. I have a sense she might dart off, as in play. Of course, she does not. She walks around a corner, past a vendor. They greet; there’s the echo of their voices against stone.
Sometimes she goes into a place I don’t like. I follow her in today, through the doorway, iron-hinged. It’s dim inside, and smells damp, of the earth. But it’s a high-ceilinged space, a soaring space you could say. It reaches to heaven, a thick shaft of light comes through the high windows. The light is from heaven, it is that, I am certain. Yet there’s the sound of shuffling feet, on the cold stone floor. She makes her gesture, with a fluttering hand. She whispers her prayer, I watch her lips move. It’s so cool in there, cavern-walled, earth-dim. But she’s out in the sunlight again, on her way. I follow.
Now she turns into an alleyway. I see a flash of blue, and her old woman’s stockinged leg. I think she wishes to be rid of me, to lose me. Away, away with you, she wishes. And when I turn a corner and catch up with her again she’s become much older. Or so I imagine it. Because now she is picking her way among stones, not walking at all. She picks her way among refuse and rubbish, broken stones. No longer stones laid in order, but stones piled and broken into rubble. There’s a smouldering, as of ash. The streets, now, are not familiar, or they’re familiar in the way a ruined face resembles the young person’s it once was. The shadows deepen. She clambers like an insect, weakly.
But of course, this is not what I see. I shake my head, shake the vision. The curving street reassembles itself, the order restored. She’s ahead as before, and she walks on. Perhaps she tires, although she’s quite strong. She never tires, that’s what I think. Actually, she speeds up her walk, because she sees her bus, on the main road up ahead. She breaks into a kind of run, raising her hand to the bus driver. I too have to run, if I’m to catch the bus. She climbs onto the bus ahead of me, and I get on, panting. She turns to see me, her pursuer, her blue eyes on me. But she doesn’t recognize me, and now I feel rather silly. I stand, holding the overhead rail, my hand clammy. She goes to sit, she’s at the window. I watch her still.
She’s almost home now, and soon I am following her down the steps of the bus, back into the street. She walks, again. The journey feels interminable, like a journey with no end, or a journey so long and arduous that no end will be reached. I feel exhausted: I would rest. Not she, though. She walks on, undaunted, and turns - at last - into a gateway.
The gateway is arched, it awaits her, I feel. It’s a gateway I know well, even the sound it makes as it’s opened: its own, singular sound. She walks through the gate, into the small courtyard. The courtyard is deeply shadowed, and overgrown, more overgrown than I remember. There are tired weeds: they’re a pale, dusty green. Against the wall next to the stairs she checks her mail box, lifting its lid. There’s sometimes a brown envelope, her electricity bill, it comes every month. There might be something else, today.
She starts up the stairs. They should fix her stairs, or they’ll splinter and break. But they don’t fix them. I have to be careful as I climb behind her, and I remember it was always so. I hold the rail firmly as I climb.
At the top of the first flight of stairs she knocks on Mr. G-’s door. There’s the knock, knock on wood, it echoes in the courtyard around us. It’s a very soft knock, it speaks to her diffidence, the diffidence I mentioned. In the stillness of the late afternoon, on the narrow landing, she waits.
Mr. G- comes to the door at last, and she goes in. She goes in with an air that is not that of a visitor, although she is a visitor. She goes straight to his kitchen, like a wife. She has not been a wife for some time, but in a sense she is Mr. G-‘s wife. Mr. G- has been ill for a while, he’ll not recover. He has spasms of coughing, and spends days on a chair, resting. She might go and make him some tea, she brings his bread every day, it’s fresh from her shop. She’ll sweep up for him too. In the evenings they watch television together, companionably, on his small screen. He coughs, and then he wants to rest.
I’m still following her, although I feel even sillier now, in Mr. G-‘s flat. They don’t see me, of course, yet I feel cramped – the flat is very small – in fact I think I must leave. The light in there is dim too, especially in the late afternoon. The air is stale, old. In any event, Mr. G- doesn’t want to watch television tonight, he doesn’t feel well. Thank you, thank you for the bread, he says.
So she climbs the second flight of stairs, and she’s home. I will leave her there, unlocking her door. I’ll not follow. For one thing, I’m tired, I need to sleep.
The light from the streetlamp shines silver across the wooden floor, and across my bed, where I lie. I went away from her, from where she is. I follow her in my mind, through the streets and streets. It puts me to sleep, eventually. I have to be at work tomorrow, I have to wake early.
A letter came in her mail box today, I mention it now. It was a letter from me. The writing on the envelope is firm and strong, and slanting, she knows it at once. She knows the stamp too – a foreign stamp - but it’s the writing she sees, that she studies. I am her daughter, she has to see what I have done, what I have written, what I do. Or should I say, she is my mother, and so she has to see all this.
I went from her. I came for my work to this place where I am. I learn, here, a new language, a new way. I lie at night wrapped in my covers, enclosed. And I follow. I follow her nightly, in the late afternoon sun, back and back through the streets and streets, step by step on the stones, through all the places that I know and remember, until, with her, I reach home.
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories will be published by TSAR Publications in the fall of 2010.
April 6th, 2010
Griffin Poetry prize shortlist announced
April 1st, 2010
Gaspereau Press Wins Five Alcuin Design Awards