Earliest heartbreaks

I’m six years old, it’s July and I’m playing in my grandmother’s back garden with the newly-hatched baby ducks. She’s shouting after my brother to be careful and not step on the little things as he runs.

I don’t run. I sit on the broken stone slabs and watch them; I give them names, figure out their personalities. There are six, yellow and black; The larger one has pale feathers and is bossy, she doesn’t get a name. The smallest one is mostly black; she gets left behind all the time and trips over the bits of stone on the dusty path trying to catch up. She’s called Jackie.

My mother shows up from around the house wearing her red sleeveless shirt and the jeans she’d cut into shorts earlier. I’m holding Jackie in my hands and she wants to take a photo. I stand, tilt my head to one side and slowly bring my hands near my face. I look at her little beak, her moist black eyes and I see her. She’s fragile, she’s strong – she’s Jackie. The camera clicks and mum walks away absently.

I spend the rest of the day taking Jackie on adventures. She goes in the vegetable garden where the ducks aren’t allowed to go and gets to walk on the scarce patches of grass under the trees and eat bits of lettuce and cucumber. She sleeps in my lap on the street bench by the gate, while I watch the older kids play hide and seek.

It’s early evening. Jackie and the ducks are back in their little enclosure and we all sit outside eating cold soup made with green beans and lemon. Mum smokes, grandpa sits quietly, his head bowed over the metal bowl while grandma tells him off for yet another thing he forgot to do.

I eat quickly and think about her, decide where we’d go before it gets dark. I finish, I stand up, take the five steps to the duck enclosure, open the gate in a hurry. I look for her on the other side, not near. I step over the little fence and inside. But the earth is soft, it squeaks, it crushes. It moves so slightly under my shoe and goes limp, flat, lifeless.

I know. I don’t breathe, I don’t look. Oh dear god, please, don’t let it be Jackie. I lift my foot slowly and stare at the still black feathers and the stretched out neck. Her beak is crooked, her eyes open and moist. I die.

My limbs gather themselves, my arms squeeze around my knees; an enormous lump fills my throat and my chest, my muscles tense, my eyes widen, my ears ring. The wail finally escapes, it rings through the garden like an air raid siren. They rush and stare, someone comforts me, someone laughs. The duck is picked up by her tail and held high for all to see. ‘Third one this week’ my grandma says casually while my mother insists that I must stop crying. I must!

They take her. But where? I can’t speak. I must dig a grave, make a cross like my father did for the little bee we found in the water pail last year. I have to speak. I can’t speak. My swollen eyes follow my grandma, she goes to the side garden towards the latrine; she walks fast, I can’t stop her. I close my eyes, squeeze them, bury my head between my knees.

‘Come on silly; she says walking back empty handed, ‘it’s nothing, forget about it!’

She’s gone.

It’s evening. I’m curled up around a pillow in the cool room, crying softly. My face itches, my head and my muscles hurt. Mum walks in and she’s strange, her face twitches and she stutters, can’t bare to watch me in pain, can’t figure out what to say, how to stop it. I sit up and look at her ‘Maybe she’s in heaven’ I whisper between hiccups, and smile. ‘I’m sure she went to god and she’s happy..’

‘I’ll be okay, mum, really!’

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Silver Birches

The young man dressed in white helped her out of the car. She didn’t look around, but buried her chin in the collar of her gown.

They walked through the open metal gates together, and in the garden he let go of her arm and stood quietly. The crisp smell of winter filled her nostrils, and another smell, sweet and earthy like tree bark that’s just been ripped off. She looked up.

‘Birches!’ She gasped, her brows folding the ageing skin between them. ‘I know these birches!’ the memory burned her eyes, and she looked away, blinking repeatedly.

She began to walk alone, listening to her feet crush the thin ice on the gravel path. A squirrel jumped from a tree and rustled through a pile of dead leaves, startling her.

‘What is this place?’ she demanded, and the man gestured towards the white house at the far end of the garden. She looked, but her whole body turned around instantly, instinctively. She stood as still as the frozen grass blades, staring blankly.

After a while she cleared her throat and smiled, looking towards the top of the little hill ahead, where an old wood arch stood rotten. She bent over, swiftly pulled off her shoes and socks, and threw them as far as her weary arm could manage. The man rushed to her and grabbed her arm but she screamed and pulled it back fiercely.

She ran up the hill, then down again; spun around and threw herself onto the thawing grass, rolling over and over. ‘I’m the yellow dog’ her mouth blurted out unexpectedly, as if it was another’s. The unclaimed words startled her and her face dropped, as if pulled by a heavy weight hanging from her eyelids. ‘The yellow dog who ran through the arch, when there were roses wrapped around its legs and hanging from the top.’ The mouth continued. She squinted; ‘Yes! There were white roses, big as a man’s fist! and there was a yellow dog..’

Suddenly she laid still on the grass, then curled herself so tightly her knees pressed against her eyeballs. The man came and lifted her, unsettled by the inhuman screeching that now echoed around the silver birches; her legs dragged behind so he picked her up and carried her to the car the way you’d carry a sleeping child. Face buried in his neck, her cry grew quiet and she began mumbling made up words..

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Fires burnt out, the silent warmth of settling ash thaws my fingers – at last. Brown eyes, released of their redness, turn green..

I can finally breathe with your name on my lips and my arms no longer beg do dig your grave. The grieving ends, and having passed through its stages, I can hang the enormous picture of us on the wall and stare at it filled with nostalgia, and not fury.

I reclaim my heart, then wrap it around you – thankful for its strength to hold, and to let go. I welcome the longing as my eternal companion and joyfully drink in its honour.

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Heartbeat

And there, on the edge of the high hotel bed – holding your head against my chest, curling your hair around my fingers – my heart learned a new rhythm. It’s a strange beat, uneven and convulsive. It shoves the blood to my head and halts the air in my lungs, numbs my fingers.

When I remember the look in your eyes or the reflections, the damned thing beats as if it wants to come out. It rings in my ears and shakes in my limbs, turns me stupid. I stand and I stare; I wait for the madness to ease, but lately it seems to grow longer.

I wish I could restore the old rhythm, but it’s lost. I left it at the door when I couldn’t knock. I left it on the bathroom sink when I sprayed your perfume on my arm and it burned; it still burns…

That night – our last – I cried in the shower, watching you wash off my burning skin, not knowing that you had crawled under it. I can still smell the perfume in the same place, where the skin is now peeling.

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I don’t know what to say to you. There are words rotting in my throat that I can’t let go, and they burn my lungs as I hold them. The fire you carried on your skin lit my eyes, but hell bloomed from it when you left..

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