This week at Crazy Hip Blog Mamas, the theme is Something I made that I was really proud of.
So. This goes waaaay back to my college days in Canada, when I submitted this and a second story to a la-di-da literary fiction contest. Ahem. Talking With His Hands won and the other story placed fourth, out of hundreds. Trust me — no one was more surprised than yours truly. And though I preferred the other story, I was still thrilled this one had won. A big prize. Me.
Dave and I went over to Vancouver to rub shoulders and drink beer with the very erudite Creative Writing types who ran the magazine. Had to do a reading, which normally doesn’t bother me, but it was a bit daunting in front of the small group of very smart, talented people who had driven in to UBC that night in the rain — gulp! — to hear me read my little story.
Haven’t thought about Talking With His Hands in a while. It sits in a virtual drawer with a bunch of other stories in varying stages of being written and rewritten. Somehow moving to a new country and having a baby kinda got in the way.
That said, I thought this was a good opportunity to dust it off, and for those of you who don’t know me personally, to show you this little part of me that’s still lying neatly folded at the bottom of the drawer, cherished and not forgotten. Enjoy.
Talking with His Hands
When Cyrus wrote that he was soon to be married and would not be returning home to Keimoes, his father did not reply for two months. When the letter finally came, Petrus Leshoa asked his son only this: “What must I now do with this house I have built for you?”
Cyrus had not thought about the house the four years he’d been in the States. He did not consider it his. That his father built it for him now made some sense; Petrus was a man who spoke with his hands. Realizing this made it more difficult. Cyrus could not tell his father that he finally understood, could not explain that the gesture made little difference. He could not bring Chlaris home.
Keimoes township and its small cinder-brick houses sat on the edge of the crack-hard Kalahari. Should he write again and tell his father he was surrounded by lush, green firs–that things grew up without effort out of the soft, dark ground? It would mean nothing to him. Cyrus could only explain in a few carefully written lines that his new wife was white. This he knew his father would understand.
Cyrus did not receive a single word from home the first year he was in America. It was 1973. In the months before leaving, he tried to show his family on a map how many days it would take–first in a bus and then in one, two, three airplanes. The Aga Khan Foundation wanted to sponsor an underprivileged but promising student from black South Africa. When the selection committee asked Cyrus at nineteen years of age why he should be allowed to study overseas, he explained that he didn’t want to work with his hands all his life–he wanted to use his head to help people. When he said the same thing to his father, Petrus nodded and replied that Cyrus was clever enough to find office work in nearby Upington, or even as far as Kimberley. Why would he want to travel any further?
Seattle was a world away. Cyrus found the people there as soft and giving as the soil. He lived, ate and studied in the dark, moist basement of an old man who charged him no rent. In his third year studying psychology, he bought two pairs of second-hand blue jeans, a red corduroy jacket and let his hair grow out three inches–there had been little time for pleasure. When a pretty girl invited him to a party, Cyrus tore the cellophane off the pale blue dress shirt his father had given him, tucked it loosely into his jeans and pulled on a pair of brown cowboy boots he’d found at the Salvation Army. They made him stand six feet tall.
Chlaris was the most beautiful thing Cyrus saw when he walked into the room. Her long halter dress curved out like a bell from just under her breasts and in the dim, orange light her hair ran honeylike down her bare back. He would smile and tell her years later she’d looked naked to him–that he imagined he could see right through her clothes in the ochre light and felt a bit ashamed. Every winter since then Cyrus watched her bury herself in sweaters and heavy skirts, and every spring he saw her peel them off layer by layer until she stood in the doorway of their bedroom, bare as he’d first seen her. It was her most natural state.
– O –
What Chlaris confessed to her husband just months after they were married was that she begged her friend Nancy to invite him to the party. She’d seen Cyrus eating slowly in the university cafeteria; she’d noticed him walking alone over wide green fields; she’d caught a glimpse of him jumping off the number three bus. After the party she took his long arms and wrapped them around her waist. She ran her palms up his crisp, new shirt, rubbed the stiff collar between her thumb and forefinger. Then she closed her eyes and put her nose to his warm, dark chest. It had stayed this way.
At the wedding she remembered dancing just so in his arms, wearing a creamy chiffon gown. Cyrus picked out a brown velvet suit and a yellow carnation. The four-piece band played the Bee Gees–breaking us down, when they all should let us be; we belong to you and me.
It was weeks before Chlaris sat down and thought back on the wedding, about who had and had not come. A handful of friends had just not shown up. A world of fools. It was then too that she really realized Cy had still not heard from his family.
“It does not matter,” he said to her, his smooth lip curling, twitching. “My father was always away when I was growing up.”
“But why?” Her own father flew in from an assignment somewhere in South America. Stood at the microphone in his best suit and ruffled shirt and made a horrible speech.
Chlaris felt she’d been told very little about Cy’s family. His father, she knew, was a bricklayer; his mother, a young woman of a different race. She had died of scarlet fever when Cyrus was three, Cy being raised mostly by his grandfather, the black minister of Keimoes Baptist Mission. When she asked once just how much he’d seen of his father over the years, Cyrus replied casually, “Between the building jobs … little bit here, little bit there.” And when she wanted to know about his mother, he insisted he had no memory of her, that his father had only the one picture, and that he could not remember her full name or when he had last seen her face. Apart from this, she knew nothing. It was all done with mirrors, Chlaris decided. So carefully concealed in the dark. When she reached a hand into his soul, she found nothing there. She could only piece together the small fragments he let her have, the tiny shards that chipped off and fell to the ground.
“It’s not that I don’t have a father, Chlaris,” he once said, reaching up with one hand to change a dead light bulb. “You think I am an orphan? He just did not live with us after my mother died.”
And now, all these years later, this father–the man Chlaris saw in her mind as silent and dusty and dark–was coming to visit them in Vancouver for three months. She had no words. No words for this person who’d said nothing to her over the years–a man who had not even noted the births of his own son’s children–Chad and then little Alicia and now Julius.
She sat on a bench at Vancouver International, gently pressing the baby’s clammy hands between her own, reaching up to adjust her thin cotton blouse. Chad and ‘Licia were counting the green tiles that seemed to swim on the beige floor. The green ones, Chad told her, were islands; there were crocodiles all around in the water. “Lift up your feet, Mommy, or they’ll get you.”
Mommy. The word came so easily to her children. It rolled so easily off her own tongue when she spoke to her mother. What would she call Petrus Leshoa? There were strict rules among Cy’s people about such things. Cyrus found it almost impossible at first in America, and later Canada, to call older people by their first names. He’d given her an African word to use for his father, but it felt thick on her tongue. Her voice squeaked when she said it.
Chlaris looked over at Cy. Tall as he stood, he strained, trying to look around the corner of a flat glass window. The six-thirty from Gatwick was just now being announced. Cyrus turned, looked at her and smiled. A small boy. He had called the airline twice that afternoon. Chlaris nodded and smiled in return; yes, the plane was on time. Then she turned Julius around to feed from her right breast, moving the light paisley shawl from one shoulder to the other. Cyrus called the children over to him. The two came running and flopped down on the luggage cart, vying for position. He bent down, speaking gently, the two dark heads bobbing in agreement. Chlaris rose slowly.
– O –
For Cyrus it had been months and years. Four years since he’d been back to see his family; six months since he’d written to ask his father to visit in return. He expected nothing, but a letter came from Africa within five weeks: “Mr. Mathaba on the corner now has a telephone. I am no longer finding work. If you ring there, we can make the arrangements.” And, “I have put a good wire fence around your house this year.”
Cyrus first saw the finished house when he returned to Keimoes in ‘81. The materials were all familiar. His father had collected them all through Cy’s teenage years: Scrap lumber thrown aside on a job site, old window casings removed to be replaced, mismatched bricks piled in heaps-all hauled away on a donkey cart and stored by his father under sacks and plastic. Once Cy settled in from his journey, his father showed him proudly through every square inch of wall, floor and ceiling, as though it were a mansion. Cyrus held out a photo to his father of Chlaris and the two children–chubby little Chad holding onto his mother’s calf, and Alicia, just a baby then, resting on her other hip. Chlaris’s hair was drawn back into a braid, her short legs covered in a batik skirt. The picture was taken on the steps of their old-wood Kitsilano home the day they moved in. Petrus held it at a distance. “It is a strange thing,” he said to his son, after a while. “Pictures can tell lies.” Cyrus carried this moment like a snapshot in his mind.
In the airport now, he was surprised by his own mood. The anticipation had been too much; it was beyond feeling. Cy was quite sure he could climb into his car and drive down to the beach for an ice cream instead. But he had waited for this moment. He had imagined and rehearsed and anticipated every thing his father might say, planned the journey from Keimoes to Kimberley to Johannesburg to London to Vancouver. Cy wanted nothing to go wrong. He knew exactly how overwhelming the trip would be for his father, who only ever traveled by foot or on the back of a rattling pick-up truck. The airlines assured him that Mr. Leshoa would be treated with the highest level of care, and handed from one steward to an air hostess to an airport official and so on.
Passengers started appearing between the smoked-glass Arrivals doors. Chad and Alicia stood up and Chlaris came to his side, now burping the baby. Cyrus could hear his own blood rushing through his head, everything else becoming muffled. He expected at any moment for his father to walk cautiously through the door. He expected to smell his smell, of cement dust and coal smoke. To see his old brown coat folded neatly over one arm.
“Mr. Leshoa?” Someone tapped his shoulder. “Mr. Leshoa?”
Cyrus turned. An air hostess stood smiling behind an airport wheelchair. He looked down. His father was already struggling to get up, his feet getting caught in the metal footrests.
“Pa … oh, pa.” Cyrus gripped his father’s elbow with one arm, and both his hands with the other. “I see you … It is good to see you.” This all in his language. His father felt weak in his arms but just as tall as Cy remembered. They would stand eye to eye. Cy drew back to look at his face. The skin was dry, the eyes tired and bloodshot. His father stared over his shoulder, stunned, at Chlaris and the baby.
“Pa, this is my wife … these are your children.” But the old man could not stop looking at the woman in front of him. Chlaris turned her head slightly, then stepped forward and took the old man’s hand. She greeted him quietly. Leshoa bowed slightly, nodded, turned back to his son.
“I think I must sit down again,” he said.
– O –
Chlaris sat barefoot in her living room, knitting and watching TV. It was Saturday afternoon and very warm outside. The V-neck sweater was for Cyrus, knitted in coarse aubergine mohair. It stuck to her damp skin. She had pulled it out of a trunk just an hour ago, at a loss for something to do. It was a project she’d started the winter she was pregnant with ‘Licia, and Chad was so clingy. Two days had passed since Petrus Leshoa’s arrival. She’d started calling him Petrus in her head. Things had been quiet and dark.
When they got home from the airport Thursday night, Petrus asked only for a strong cup of tea and a slice of bread. He then washed and went straight to sleep. There was a small porch bedroom, which Cyrus had set up for his dad, installing cheap, white blinds to give him privacy. The next morning, Cy went to check on his father. The bed was still made up. His father lay stretched out covered only by a small, green blanket he’d brought from home. Chlaris was furious and asked why he could not sleep in the bed they’d prepared for him. Cyrus sat down heavily on a kitchen chair and explained it was customary for traveling men to carry their own covers.
Chlaris worked the whole of the Friday, as she did every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Cyrus consulted from home on these days, scheduling appointments between walking Chad to and from school. That evening when she returned from the office, Petrus stood in the kitchen talking with his son. As she came in, Chlaris slipped off her linen jacket, wiggled off her high heels, and undid the silk scarf holding her fine hair back. Then she rolled a tube of drawings onto the kitchen counter and kissed Cyrus, who was frying onions.
“Hello, my Sister Golden Hair,” he said to her, sliding an arm around her shoulder. He brushed a few strands from her cheek with the back of his hand. Chlaris turned to greet Petrus, who was still standing. He seemed to be looking right through her.
“Please sit,” she said. “Please be at home.”
And so it had been. Moments of politeness, gestures of awkward grace. That night they ate the kind of food Cyrus occasionally made “from home”–stiff cornmeal porridge, and beef smothered in tomato and onions. The children ate pizza.
Chlaris woke the next morning feeling strangely light and buoyant. After breakfast, they all climbed into the pale green station wagon to go sightseeing. She sat with the children, her hair blowing out over the back seat. Watching Cy’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. They looked peaceably back at her, then straight ahead out at the traffic, then sideways over to his father. As they drove through Stanley Park, the firs loomed over their heads, shading the road. Cy’s father looked mostly across the water, out past Siwash Rock, past Prospect Point. It was the first time he’d seen the ocean. Cy asked him quick questions Chlaris could not understand. Petrus turned occasionally, making simple observations for her benefit in English: The water, it looks so far! … In Keimoes, not so many clouds … This is a very good car. Chlaris was pleased, if a little embarrassed by the effort. He’d started smiling at Chad and Alicia too.
When they returned, Cyrus went downstairs into the office. He was one of the few counselors in the city who scheduled weekend hours because it gave him a chance during the week to spend time with his children. By lunchtime, all the clouds had disappeared, and the sun was high and hot. Chlaris put on a loose-fitting sundress and went out into the back garden where she found Petrus watching the two kids climb the arbutus next to the split-pole fence.
“This tree,” he said to her, rolling his sleeves back fold upon fold, “should be in Keimoes.”
Chlaris looked at the colours of the tree, the peeling bark, and saw exactly what he meant. She’d seen pictures of the dry, inland terrain. They stood a while and watched Chad hang upside-down from a sturdy branch. Alicia rode her tricycle in small circles around his head. Petrus chuckled and Chlaris smiled.
She sat now, half watching a TV game show in the living room. Her needles clicked just out of sync with the tick-tock timer on the show; the buzzer rang. Petrus sat on the long, tan sofa to her left. He too had come in from the heat. She wondered briefly what he thought of what he saw on the screen. The man with the broad, striped tie had just won five thousand dollars. He shouted and pumped his fists above his head. Then he leaned over, grabbed and kissed the game-show assistant, a brunette with Lady Diana hair and a strapless mauve dress. Petrus shifted slightly in his seat. He folded his hands over his lap.
When Chlaris first saw him, she too had stood and stared. Petrus looked almost exactly like his son, but thinner and two or so shades darker. This was partly due to working in the sun all his life. It was also because Cyrus had been born with his mother’s complexion, a pale cardamom brown. Other children teased Cy when he was young, said his nose looked like that of a chicken, and that he should go back where his mother was from–to coolie town. Cyrus told her this once as she kissed a bare shoulder and traced the shape of his face with her eyes open. He never mentioned it again.
Chlaris was startled by a high cry; baby Julius was waking. She set the knitting aside, wandered through to his crib. When she brought him back into the living room she found Chad and ‘Licia, sitting on either side of Petrus. A flat, green Lego board balanced on his knees and the two were taking turns passing him bricks of varying colours. Petrus sorted them slowly in his big, flat hand, then laid them one by one, layer by layer.
“This is how the door opens,” said Alicia, pinching the little doorknob between her thumb and forefinger. Petrus tried to open it himself, but his thumb was too big and rough and pushed the yellow door in. Chad pressed it back in place and offered to show his grandfather how to make the sloping, red roof. Petrus Leshoa had never seen a roof made of bricks.
– O –
Late Sunday morning Cyrus took his father down to Fitson’s Lumber World. At breakfast they’d argued whether the store would be open or not. Cyrus insisted he should know. Inside Fitson’s his father walked slowly behind, looking from left to right, touching ornate handles and sets of shiny screw drivers, calling to his son who walked quickly ahead to get what he needed. They’d come for cement.
The low stone wall was to run along the back length of the small property. It would end just under the arbutus tree. Cyrus wanted a concrete-and-wood bench built right into the corner. He watched his father’s face as a young man with a blonde ponytail wheeled a dolly load of cement up to the cash register.
“Do you need a hand out to your car, sir?” Cyrus shook his head and hand, turned to pay the cashier.
“That’ll be fifty-eight seventy-five,” she said. As he reached down into his pants, his father put a heavy brass doorknob down on the wooden counter and reached into his pocket also.
“What you want with this?” Cyrus picked it up.
“It is to take home. I like this one. It is for my house … the house in Keimoes.”
Cyrus shook his head.
“Will that be together?” the cashier asked.
“Yes, yes … together,” muttered Cy. “Both together.” He waved his father’s hand away and gave the woman his credit card. In the car going home Petrus grumbled that he had his own money. Not for buying doorknobs with, Cyrus replied.
Chlaris and the children had left earlier that morning to spend the day with her parents in Sechelt. They would all return in the early evening to barbecue together. Her mother and father were looking forward to meeting Petrus Leshoa.
Cy took his father down into the basement. The old man was intrigued by this other layer, down below the rest of the house. Cy showed him through the laundry room and into his office. He pointed out the tall shelves of psychology books and reference manuals, the telephone answering machine with its blinking red light. Petrus nodded, looked unimpressed. What interested him most was that the house was made of wood. Cyrus took him to a spot on the laundry ceiling where the drywall had been stripped away. Petrus ran his fingers along the pipes running above his head, then laid a hand on a low-hanging beam as he ducked underneath and into the garage.
“This wood here, it is not level,” he said to Cyrus, patting the beam. Cy grunted. Petrus stood to one side, closed an eye and squinted along the length of it. “Can we make this thing straight?” Cyrus did not hear him. He stood staring at the plastic sheeting covering the pile of stones he’d had delivered the week before. “I am telling you, this is not level,” insisted Petrus. Cyrus looked up at his father. “It is not straight. Your house is not straight.”
Cyrus pulled his pants higher up his thighs and bent down on his haunches. “Nothing in this place is level, Pa. Nothing is straight,” then added, “These houses, they are all old.” Petrus nodded. Cy pulled back the sheeting.
Later they stood looking at the problem; the soil was layered with old oyster shells. When they began, just a little after two, Cyrus asked whether they would need a sketch to work from. His father chuckled, shook his head, asked for a ball of string and a hammer. Then he took an armful of short kindling from the woodpile under the deck.
“Just show me how you want it,” he said. Twenty minutes later, the whole thing was pegged out, and the two men began digging, each from one end. Half a foot down, the shells began to show. Cyrus could feel his shovel hitting them, chipping their edges, breaking them apart. He bent down and picked one up. On the outside it was rough, on the inside pearly smooth. When he turned it over in the light he saw feint touches of pink and blue and green.
“Your mother,” said his father. Cyrus looked up from the shell to his father bent down low. “Your mother, she always wanted me to make a house.” Cyrus stood still and breathed slowly through his nose, hearing the words in his native language. He remembered living with his grandfather at the Keimoes Mission–how everything smelled of floor wax and paraffin. Beyond this, he remembered nothing of a home. “She wanted a house built away from the others.” Over the years Cyrus had come to doubt this mother ever existed. Still, he knew there must have been a woman who birthed him into the world, who fed him at her breast, perhaps sang him songs she knew.
“What was her name?”
His father stood up slowly, put his foot down on the blade of his shovel, leaned over on the handle. He stared at the round tip of his gumboot for a long time. “Her name was Saira Patel.” Cyrus sat down on the grass.
– O –
When Chlaris returned home with her parents and children, her husband took hold of her shoulders in his muddy hands and kissed her hard. Her mother hugged Cy’s middle and teased that he was putting on weight, then gathered up her two eldest grandchildren to put them in the bathtub.
Cyrus put out his hand to her dad. “Come through to the back and meet my father, Bill.” Chlaris smiled. Cyrus had learned to meet force with force when it came to her father. Bill Strumble had spent his life working in the battle zones of the world as a logistician–Cambodia, Afghanistan, South America, the Horn of Africa. Her mother had sometimes gone with him. Once, after the birth of her first grandchild and two gin and tonics, Felicity whispered loudly to Cyrus that Chlaris was conceived in a pup-tent on Lake Malawi. The humour of this revelation–the vision of her mother and father fumbling under the African stars–had been lost on Cyrus. Chlaris wondered, as she tore lettuce into a colander, why there were things parents felt they could not say to their children.
Through the kitchen window she now watched Petrus struggle to his feet to greet her father. They were, she knew, roughly the same age. The discussion, from where she stood, soon seemed to turn to the half-dug pit along the back fence. Chlaris noticed a great deal of nodding, pointing and hands set on hips. Her father began pacing up and down the yard counting, his short, bowed body a curious shape next to the two tall men. Cyrus interjected, strode along the same line and counted out louder; she could hear the numbers now. Petrus took two steps back and leaned against the fence.
The following morning, Cyrus was gone before Chlaris or the baby woke up. Pale sunlight streamed in the laundry window. On the kitchen counter lay the remains of the night before. Chad and Alicia were still asleep. Chlaris made coffee and went out into the garden barefoot.
“I did not hear you coming.”
“I know,” said Chlaris. “I did not see you ‘til I lifted my head.” The two smiled. Petrus stood up straight, his eyes caught in a band of sunshine. She stepped over the string boundary and wiped the wetness off a low arbutus branch. She often sat out here summer mornings when the air was cool and moist. “I am sorry about my dad.” Petrus nodded and inched his shovel under an unyielding shell. He struggled to pry it loose. “I’m afraid that’s the way he is,” she said.
The shovel slipped. Petrus let out a gasp. “This thing is too hard.” Chlaris frowned. He began again. “But i’s not much more now,” he said, chipping away bit by bit. He looked up at her sitting in the early light filtering through the leaves. “This digging … will make a strong underneat’.”
She put her head to one side, looked along the length of the hole. “Foundation?”
“Ja.” And after a while. “That name–the name that my son has for you.”
Chlaris turned to face him in the dappled light, and thought for a bit. “Sister Golden Hair?” She laughed. “It’s from a song … the night I met Cyrus–long time ago now.”
Chlaris shrugged. For a while, there was only the sound of the spade chopping soil. Then he spoke.
“This tree … does it give fruit?”
“This? This tree?” she asked. “The arbutus?” Petrus nodded, carried on chopping. “Not that you can eat. Why do you ask?”
“You look like the spirit of my wife.” The chopping stopped dead.
Petrus Leshoa stood up tall. “When I married my wife, I was waiting to marry her for eight years. I keep her face in front of my eyes. When I saw you in the airport … when I see you now…” He sniffed, tapped the spade three times on its side to loosen a clump of soil. “In the back yard of my father’s church there was a tree. When I married Cyrus’s mother, her family would not see her anymore. We could not live in the Indian houses … she could not live in the black location. Only at this church. Every day … when I am coming home, I see her there, under that tree … the one that gives figs. Every evening with the baby on her lap, when I come home.” Chlaris stood up from the tree, walked towards her husband’s father. “That is the picture I see of Saira. This is how I see my wife and my son.”
– O –
Years later, Cyrus would remember coming home that evening to find Chlaris and his father together at the kitchen table, laughing and drinking strong tea. His father’s eyes were bright as he told a story of small Cyrus climbing under his grandfather’s robes during an Easter service. Petrus told the story, gesturing with hands that would turn ashen days later as they mixed cement for the stone wall.
The wall was not completed within those three months. When Cyrus slipped into the porch room with the white blinds one afternoon, his father lay dead under the small, green blanket.
Over the years, when the family sat out on the lawn in the summer, Cyrus would lean back against the low garden wall and look up into the trees. And when the house finally became too small for the Leshoas and their growing teenagers, the young couple who bought it had only one question: Why would anyone sink a brass door handle into the armrest of a garden bench?