“Mulberries”

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.

Down 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.

Four 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.

Pietermaritzburg 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.

We 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.

Secretly, 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.

While 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.

In 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.

Then 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.

That 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 in prison.

Until 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.

Here 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.