Agni, Boston, MA, 2002.
Translated into Spanish by Javier Gallego Juan, “Moreras,”
El Nido del Escorpion, Madrid, 2003.
Translated into Swedish by Janco Karlsson, “Mulbär”, Ny Tid, 19 September 2007.
the street a mulberry tree overhangs the sidewalk and now
that it is full summer in Massachusetts and the berries are
ripe and the sidewalk stained with those that drop, I stop
to pick a few off the low branches within reach. Whenever
I do, I am picking mulberries in 1960.
of us started early, after mass and before sunrise, and when
we drove high through the hills that cup Pietermaritzburg
we saw the morning mist below. For us it was thrilling, in
those days before flying was common, to come out of the mist
and be higher than the clouds, pink, then butter yellow, then
white, held like lumpy porridge in a bowl. We continued through
the rising plain into green foothills, and then higher into
the sharp mountains that divide the coastal plain from the
highveld. Drakensberg, Dragon Mountains, fierce and legendary.
I grew up in Johannesburg, a city foreigners told me was ugly.
I was too young to know anything else and thought they missed
the character of the metropolis I loved. The Drakensberg were
my first encounter with the kind of beauty that inspires people
to see God in nature. “I will lift up my eyes to the
hills,” a devout friend quoted.
was lush, different from crisp Johannesburg, different from
the high peaks. In the hills that rise from ‘Maritzburg
on the Clearwater Road, people who still called England home
road horses, played polo and, I’d heard, hunted fox.
In late winter, azalea hedges bloomed solid red, and when
we went into woods to pick mushrooms I felt the thrill of
a city child doing country things I’d read about, of
a colonial dressing up in the life of the metropolis that
felt more legitimate and real than the lives we were living.
In the mountains, I felt no doubleness of vision. The light
was simple and clear, the air transparent.
were driving up to see a Dominican who sometimes preached
vividly about the matter almost no one else would mention
and we felt exhilarated, as people do who share a truth that
no one else puts into words. It would be twenty years before
the Catholic Church would speak out clearly about apartheid.
Our host gave us lunch, and apologized that he would eat more
quickly than us – the rule allowed him only fifteen
minutes – and then we talked about people in prison
in the state of emergency the government had declared when
the world seemed appalled at Sharpeville. If not for the international
reaction, the massacre would have passed like others, apartheid
as usual. The international condemnation felt like our conversations
with the Dominican, a relief to know that others saw what
we saw. We had friends in prison and knew that none were dangerous.
In any other country, we believed, their peaceful protest
would have been legitimate. Not here where the slightest opposition
seemed so lonely that to find another person sharing it felt
like a light in darkness. Our friends believed everyone should
have the vote and the country should be governed by law, not
administrators with whims no one could question.
I knew that with friends in prison I felt something like the
thrill I hear now in America when people tell how they saw
a celebrity in the drug store lining up to pay the cashier
like anyone else.
we were up in the mountains, a quick snow squall touched the
pastures, rare weather for us, and driving back we talked
about the few other times we’d seen snow and about hailstorms
we tried to treat as substitutes, about what it must be like
abroad, and about the beauty of the country we loved, the
mountains, the highveld, the coast, troubling because we could
not share that love with the people who lived around us and
were not allowed to travel and could not afford to. Driving
from town to town on country roads, it was common to see an
African walking barefoot, sometimes with laced shoes too expensive
to wear out dangling at their shoulders. Everywhere men and
women in rags and naked, potbellied children showed what it
means to have no rights.
Pietermaritzburg, the day had been hot and humid, and we marveled
that we had passed from snow to swelter in a few hours. We
stopped at the Girls’ High School where I taught and
lived, and while I was collecting a book from my room, the
others walked near the tennis courts on a bright lawn punctuated
by rose bushes.
we drove to the home of a friend who had not come with us.
I recall others there, an Indian couple - the woman, a doctor,
looking regal in her sari - and a Zulu school teacher. We
talked again about justice, wondering what we could do about
it. Our host had prepared dinner, and invited us to go out
into the garden and pick mulberries to eat with cream. Strawberries
were exotic, rare and expensive and other northern berries
wholly unknown. Our dessert was rich with colonial allusions
and illusions like Christmas dinner eaten in the heat of summer.
is the main reason I stop under the mulberry tree to pick
a few berries I may have no right to though they overhang
a public street. I think of St Augustine, whose Confessions
I read that year, 1960. He examines a time he stole pears
though he could easy get better pears without stealing and
sees his thieving as evidence of original sin in himself.
I felt that evidence in the celebrity thrill of knowing people
that day in Piertermaritzburg, I thought of mulberries mainly
for their leaves. When I was eleven my brother collected silk
worms in shoe boxes with punctured tops. They preferred mulberry
leaves to lettuce, and he sometimes procured leaves from a
neighbor’s tree. When the white worms wove their cocoons,
he unwove them, holding the cocoon in his mouth and winding
the thread onto a wooden spool he had made. Sometimes he did
not let the worms weave cocoons at all. When they started
laying thread he set each on a four inch square of cardboard
he had fixed on a dowel. The prisoner worm would walk and
walk, laying silk in its wake as it looked for a place to
stop. My brother’s cardboard square allowed no resting
place. The worm walked, weaving its square of silk and eventually
died. Years after the craze, my brother still had the silk
so remorselessly collected. I never learned what he imagined
he would do with his harvest. Those worms fed into my sense
that the powerful have no pity on the powerless and, in a
gossamer way, into my decision to leave South Africa.
in America, I sometimes fear any object or experience can
become a commodity. Not these mulberries I pick off a neighbor’s
tree as though they are my right. These mulberries hold a
day that is mine alone. The old South Africa I grieved for
is gone, and the new suffers new miseries rooted in the old.
My friends scattered long ago and there will never be another
day that brings us together. The mist still rises in the valley’s
bowl, there may still be sudden snow in the mountains, marvelous
to people who see flakes rarely. Another child may collect
silkworms, another group of friends eat mulberries and cream
and feel guilt at their pleasure in a world of pain. But that
day remains in me, hidden. I know that everyone else also
has days in their lives, hidden, some even from ourselves.
Sometimes there’s a glimpse in a gesture that may surprise
onlookers, like my pause to pluck berries from the shady branches
down the street.