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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

Belly


Yolanda Holden - 2009-05-07

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe in impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

            ‑ Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

After the modification, I experience inward peace and tranquillity. The pressure of anxiety has vanished. I respire deeply with awareness. Deep breathing forces the breath down to my belly, out to the rib cage and up to the oesophagus. The exhale releases from top, middle to bottom – expanding my lung capacity, improving cardiovascular exchange and revitalising my cells as the energy current radiates through my entire body. I am high on oxygen, living on pure prana.

Memories of the past week swivel within my mind like a school of sardines. Behind the wheel of the Land Rover, I feel somewhat dizzy and light-headed as thoughts migrate on the air current towards Mozambique where my journey first began. My appetite has not yet returned. I have not eaten since twilight and will probably never eat again.

 

Chapter 1: The carnivore

I have my weekend planned: tickets to the game, a fully stocked cooler box and enough Blue Bull steaks and biltong to last through the match. I have managed to avoid my boss for the entire afternoon. I do not have the energy or the intention to spend my weekend shackled to a laptop, cell phone and PowerPoint presentation.

It is three-thirty when I stand up, grab my jacket and flee through the doors of freedom. I spread my eager wings and jangle my Land Rover's keys merrily.

"You and me, baby, ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." When the Bloodhound Gang ring tone vibrates in my pocket, I ignore the bad omen and start the engine.

As the shadow overpowers me and a bony finger taps me on the shoulder, I discover my gruesome fate. Now the words of my boss come as a shock as he instructs me, "Jonas, arise, and go to Maputo, the great city, where you are expected to make a presentation to our clients about our organisation and its phenomenal products."

"But I …" I hold the tickets in the air in a frantic attempt at rebellion.

"Thanks, I'll take those," he smirks.

My wings are clipped. I yelp ‑ realising that my plans have gone to the dogs. In the corporate jungle, one has to eat or be eaten. The reigning Rottweiler has just devoured the Miniature Doberman, spat out the remains.

On Radio Mozambique, the Deputy Chairperson of the Disaster Management Coordinating Council is saying, "Mozambique and Madagascar regularly suffer from cyclones in the southern Indian Ocean at this time of the year. There are fears that global warming may exacerbate the cyclone season. Last year was the worst season recorded, with six cyclones killing about 150 people."

When I arrive in Maputo, the sky is cloudy and dark, but I am tired and think nothing of it. The humidity makes my clammy clothes cling to me like a shroud.

"Olá!" After my hearty greeting, the locals at the reception desk assault me in Portuguese.

"Eu nao falo Portuguese."

After my confession, they look at me suspiciously and ask me too many questions: "What is your name and occupation?" and "Where do you come from?" and "How long will you be staying?" The inquisition leaves me drained and irritated. Am I paranoid? They say it is routine.

Exhausted after the long journey and an exceptionally difficult week at the office, I have fried catfish served with potatoes and vegetables for dinner. Afterwards, I collapse on to the bed and fall asleep in my clothes.

I cannot remember whether I am woken by my own snoring, the knock on my hotel room door, or a combination of the two. "Sir, a cyclone warning has been issued," the manager cautions in a Portuguese accent. I am still fast asleep on my feet, and make no response.

He tries to shake me awake with alarming words, "It is the second cyclone warning in two weeks. We might have to evacuate the hotel." He clutches his head in both hands. "What have we done that God is punishing us? I worship the Lord of Heaven who made the sea, and the dry land. If you believe in the Creator, please come downstairs and pray with us that the storm will pass and the sea be calm again."

Because I believe religion to be for the superstitious and pitiable, I merely mumble, "Please close the door on your way out," and go back to bed.

Moments after midnight, the moustached manager knocks on my door a second time. This time I am already awake, for the tempestuous storm and the rising waves are forcing me to consider the possible existence of a Higher Hand.

At 01:00 I am the last guest to join the group of praying tourists and businesspeople in the entrance lobby. "If the hotel is washed away by the torrent, it will be because of this heathen," intones a wrinkled portent in a floral nightgown. As I reluctantly kneel down, I can see the revulsion on their faces. The windows flutter and the roof rattles fiercely while we beg for deliverance from the brutal forces of nature. At 01:30, peer pressure forces me grudgingly to vow to make the necessary sacrifices to my lifestyle. At 02:00, I pray more sincerely. At 03:00, I give my life to the Lord and I am ready to accept my trial bravely.

Before sunrise, the storm quiets. The hotel and all the guests in it are unharmed. I drift into a peaceful sleep and forget the oath I made under duress and in a state of dread.

 

Chapter 2: The pescatarian

Through the restaurant window of the Holiday Inn I observe sightseers and locals gathered in the streets and on the beach to see the destruction caused. Trees have been crushed and cars upturned; roof tiles are strewn in the road and shops on the beachfront are filled with sea sand. "The damage of disaster is never enough reason to keep holidaymakers and their yelling children out of the sea," I smile.

After breakfast, I am strolling along the beach in my Bermuda shorts, crocs and Panama hat – enjoying my chocolate-covered, flake-filled ice cream cone. My presentation has been cancelled because of the storm. The Rottweiler is apologetic, as meek as a new-born puppy, "Please stay in Maputo for an extra two days; the company will carry the costs."

Eighty metres away, a rowdy crowd has assembled. Has someone drowned? Women are wailing and men appear deep in conversation. Are they working out rescue strategies? Children carrying buckets are racing in and out of the water. Curiosity grabs me by the feet and I accelerate my pace.

Everyone is staring at the enormous mammal stranded on the shore. They continuously sprinkle seawater on her flippers, tail and rounded back. I kneel down beside her splendour and my skin turns to gooseflesh when I touch the silkiness of hers. Her dark eyes, which are almost as big as my head, are tearful as she begs me to save her. I instantly fall in love with the majestic mermaid. As with all smitten fools, I simply have to rescue the maiden from her trying circumstances. Although I had haddock for breakfast, I vow, then and there ‑ next to her beautiful blubber ‑ never again to eat the flesh of any living creature while I myself am one.

Experts from Marine Life Rescue say there is no chance of her surviving. "Lethal injection is just as powerful as anaesthetic; it won't be painful and should effect euthanasia pretty rapidly." I refuse to accept their prognosis. I hire a trailer and a group of muscled specialists to haul the mammal into a massive tank filled with salt water using a pontoon. I cancel my reservation at the hotel, buy a diving suit and leap into our love bubble. 

Now the Lord had commanded her to swallow me and I spent three days and nights in her velvet belly. In this dark and moist place of pleasure I felt ecstasy and serenity mingle and fill me as never before. I praised the heavens, and said, "When the floods compassed me and the winds roared about me, my affliction in the belly of hell was heeded. I was cast out of thy presence but I have been permitted back into thy holy temple and found salvation in the healing waters of the sea as they were poured onto my soul. My ruined life has been restored and I have been delivered by the power of love!"

However, on the fourth day, I am consumed with an earthly hunger and the whale is commanded to cast me on dry land again. The familiar feels good under my feet as I dash to a beachside restaurant and order their special. Whale steak marinated in red Portuguese wine. My appetite for food is sated, but I am consumed by guilt.

Back in our tank, she senses the stench of her kin on my breath and her dark eyes are filled with a sadness I cannot console.

 

Chapter 3: The vegetarian

Suddenly my phone rings. "You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." The words of my boss came to me for the second time, saying, "Jonas, arise, and come back to Johannesburg, the great city, where you are expected to make a presentation to our clients about our great organisation and its phenomenal products. You have been long gone and if you are not back here soon, you will be fired."

I put on sackcloth, and sit in ashes. "What about my mermaid?" Since she is very dear to me, and because I have renounced three dry days for her therapeutic waterbed, we agree that she will spend three days on terra firma. Love will withstand the test of ecological challenges if it is strong enough. After my salvation, I am spiritually prepared to take the next step; I am willing to believe in miracles.

The journey back home is long and laborious. Although we buy ice and mineral water at the Ultra City, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep her moist. Minha esposa, my princess of the deep, is dehydrating rapidly and is experiencing violent involuntary convulsions. Her mouth is gasping – desperately yearning for the healing qualities of seawater.

A few kilometres further, after the Crocodile Bridge Gate, I make an emergency stop and throw her into the river. To my shock, she transforms into a catfish. I switch my phone off and sit the entire day crying in the scorching sun.

I lament the mind-boggling transformation of brilliant beauty into loathsome repulsiveness. Stroking her bony, flattened head, with its gulping sucker mouth, becomes a nauseating challenge. My fingers refuse to tickle her grisly barbels. Her mucus-covered skin makes me queasy. She weeps when she notices my repugnance. I am unable to dry her small, deeply set eyes as our mutual desperation grows. "In sickness and in health" becomes an internal struggle.

She is constantly deteriorating. Having once been an angler, I know a little about viral diseases and fungal infections in African catfish. Perhaps my love is struggling with crackhead disease, which is the destruction of the arborescent or air-breathing organs, leading to inflammation of the skull and resulting in a lateral skull break. Or she might be a victim of Saprolegenia, a fungus that infects the skin of catfish. In many cases, this fungus appears shortly after collection or transportation and may be the result of ecological stress or injuries sustained in the handling process. I am deeply grieved and confounded – having many questions and no answers.

"You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." Now, for the last time, as I am searching the internet for answers, the words of my boss come to me, saying, "Jonas, remain next to the Crocodile River with your fishwife and do not come back to Johannesburg, the great city, where you were expected to make a presentation to our clients about our great organisation and its phenomenal products. You have been fired and replaced with a level-headed pragmatist."

Sitting on the riverbank, I am perplexed about her state, as African catfish are supposed to be hardy, showing a greater resistance to diseases and parasites than other species. Typically, they are very adaptable and can survive out of the water for considerable periods if they remain moist. I implore, "O Lord, I know that thou art merciful and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in kindness. I pray to thee to take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. I have found and lost everything I treasure in one week."

After sulking for another few hours, I again pray to the Lord. This time, I ask the Creator to take her life from her, for it is better for her to die than to be reduced to a life of undignified suffering. Shattered and dejected, she stares at me with beady black eyes.

In my state of grievance, I imagine a voice saying, "Why do you have pity on a creature which you have not formed nor reared? She came up to the shoreline during nightfall, and was destined to perish during daybreak in the sweltering sun. Her life should have ended four days ago, but because of your supplication, I extended her life span to let you live more fully." It must be the breeze, I think.

I feel ashamed for wishing our lives to end and ask both God and my love for forgiveness. I pick fruit from a nearby tree. Although I am feeling queasy, I have to eat to rebuild my strength so that I can find a solution to the dilemma.

 

Chapter 4: The breatharian

Later that afternoon, as I sit in the blistering sun, a burning east wind starts to blow. Dust, dry grass and thistles cover everything. I become aware of the blisters the sun has burnt on my body. In the distance, I had earlier noticed a farmhouse. A short while ago, the barking of the hounds and the clamour of voices had sounded quite near to the place where I am hiding. I fear them discovering me on land on which I am obviously trespassing. If they sniff me out, my love and I will be severed forever. I remain quiet ‑ a panicky insect.

At dusk, I decide to build a shelter using branches from the nearby thorn trees and bushes. I abandon my plans to start a fire, since they would see the smoke and flames and send an expedition to search for me. A blanket keeps me warm in the cool darkness. The situation is too unimaginable, too strange to be true. I wonder, "Are we real or did someone create us as a work of fiction?" and "Are we dreaming or did someone dream us?" I have no answers. In the stillness of the night, my sadness becomes a barbed-wire entanglement.

By now, I have lost my appetite completely. I spend the night fasting and meditating to find clarity and direction. Towards the morning hours, I fall into a deep trance. Between the realm of angels and demons, between heaven and the netherworld, I meet with the ancestors, the messengers of the spirit world.

They explain: "You descended from the heavens and the energy of stars, to be formed from the primordial waters of mother earth. You renounced your powers in order to live a mortal life. You have forgotten your godly status. Embrace your destiny and vibrate light. Prepare for ascension into luminosity." Then they tell me to return my love to the sea whence she came.

I drive back to Maputo and as I release her into the ocean, I feel privileged to witness the transformation of repulsiveness into ethereal beauty. The magnificence of femininity leaves me emotional. Dark, long tresses flow over her ample breasts as her bejewelled body glitters in the sunlight. Her lustrous eyes gaze at me ‑ long and lovingly ‑ before my Mami Wata disappears beneath the waves. I experience a wondrous sense of release. Now, I understand fully: possession is incarceration. Henceforth, starvation is salvation, and longing will be my only sustenance.