The Quiet People: A short story by Shelley Kenigsberg

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The Quiet People: A short story by Shelley Kenigsberg

Fiction by Shelley Kenigsberg

This feature appears in the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators x Bengaluru Review Special Issue: Step Outside the Frame, September 2020.

The Quiet People

When I wake up the first morning the birds are fighting and calling and flitting around a huge tree. Its rippled branches, age-worn and drought damaged hold thick plumes of stalks and leaves and pods. And the dark red soil around the base is dotted with bright red lucky beans. We’ve always called them lucky; every time I've collected them they made me happy. Maybe that was luck. Just being born in a place where those trees grow.

Today though, it doesn’t feel lucky. Today I have to make the pilgrimage to the ‘Garden of Rest’. So many of them to see, to speak to in there, too many I think.

The drive to the cemetery takes me past 1 Plumer Street. The hibiscus hedge is in full bloom; huge red leaves surrounding thick white and yellow prongs. The hedge is so huge I can barely see the house. I don’t really want to.

By the time we arrive at the Garden, I’m tense and cold and quiet. I jump out of my friends’ car and, feigning calm, walk up to the man on the bench outside the entrance.

“Hello. I’d like to go inside today. Is that OK?”

“Ah, yes madam. You can. I look after this place,” he replies. He looks at me, smiles, and says, “I am here every day. I look after the quiet people.”

As the friends drive off, I’m glad it is this man who will be looking after me too.

It’s very hot. There are fat, bulbous clouds in the sky and it is the most beautiful shade of blue. The sun is still high and strong. I’ve brought my headscarf as a mark of respect but am not inclined to put it on. So, I stuff it in my bag and walk down a side path. The earth is cracking dry — it hasn’t rained for weeks. But there are still patches of lawn, carefully edged and green like the green of a garden someone loves and cares for. And some graves have fresh flowers on them. And some have broken bowls with plastic blooms that look so forlorn I want to throw them away.

The last time I was here was seven years before. As I walk through those first few aisles I find myself noticing who has arrived since then. Names come back but not many faces. But I can hear voices; reciting family details; who has gone where now and what they’re doing and that repetitive information, married or not, divorced or not, children (mostly yes), professions (mostly, yes) and country (America, Canada, Israel, Australia) goes round and round and round. It’s loud in my head. I want them to be quiet.

And then, I find my mother. And it goes very quiet. The voices stop but I can hear my heart beating. I take out my notebook and pen and write down the number of her grave. Hoping something so banal will make this just an ordinary visit. I’m shaking and I remember 952 from the last time. Does that mean there were nearly a thousand before her? Who gives them the numbers? How do the plots work? If I keep thinking of this pragmatics I don’t have to break. And then, I do. And I take a small stone, a clean white stone to my left, and knock on her stone. It’s custom to let them know you’re there. I do it; it’s done.

I’m cramping in my stomach and have to sit down. Though it feels strange, even rude, I sit on her grave. It is a cold stone. It’s dusty — red earth dusty and there are small and big ants crawling all over the sand around the tombstone. Curiously, none on it.

I have a lot to tell her; ask, just say, and how strange it is that being here, being in this place in this presence makes such a difference. Why can’t I say all this from Bondi Beach; what earthly reason makes it so different to be here?

As I sit with her, I look to the next row. There is my father. They’re close; even if it isn’t next to each other, perhaps he didn’t book his plot in time. I haven’t thought that before. I reach for the notebook, which suddenly looks alien and I can’t find a reason to write the number of his plot down. That is so clinical now. Now that the cloud of pain has broken, I’m here for a long time, it seems. I can’t move on but I have to. It is so hot and yet I’m freezing.

When I reach Keith I break, again. My nose is running, I don’t have a tissue and I sniff but it doesn’t matter. There’s no one to hear. And when I notice someone else has already left a stone, I sob. So this is real. I’m cold and sweating. And I stare at the other stones around me and read other inscriptions. I try to imagine other faces. Then I read our inscription again. And there lies Keith, young, beautiful boy.

I sit down on his stone. Am I allowed to do this? But the longer I sit, the more I’m able to talk to him. I’m sniffing and talking and I don’t want to leave. But I want to find some blessing too, so I can leave - seems so childish. But it’s what I need right here.

So I talk and talk and talk some more. Out loud in my head. Then, I stand up and prepare to say goodbye, take my leave. Instantly, the sky gets slightly darker and then much darker. And, a second later, a big wet drop falls on the stone. Then two, three, ten, quick and hard. The air is colder too and more drops fall; drops that drench me in minutes and that suddenly join to make a rain that I can’t dodge. It’s hard. I open my arms. I want to stand there and I want to get soaked and I am crying and laughing and turning. I look to see if the guard is anywhere around. But he’s left to find shelter. The ground is dark and puddles form instantly; I don’t care about the mud. I love this mud and I stamp it with force. Someone heard.

***

This is an excerpt from Shelley's forthcoming memoir: Songs in my Key: A Zimbabwe Childhood.

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