I dream of vast landscapes. The distance bends like cotton on a washing line or a rabbit vanishing down a hole. In my dream, women come, carrying brutally tined forks. Their hands crook around their bodies and somehow they are monstrous and too big. I walk, and I think I’m looking for a better landscape. Or only another landscape. This place is too wide and I pool borderless across it.
A woman draws her fork around her and says, “When I was a girl and I walked on the beach, I found a little house crusted in salt. I sat inside and ate lamprey and mint leaves. At dusk it flooded and I laughed, splashing my feet in the water. I grew into the shape of that house, ancient and mindful.”
“My nana’s house was a tent,” I say and I am very proud. “I want to have walls like she did, but I don’t know how to grow into the shape of a tent. She walked barefoot on the mountain with her mule. She made acorn flour and shouted haloo haloo to the thrushes in the valley.” I am barefoot too.
“Well, it is good to love your great-grandmother. But there are loose rocks on mountain paths and tents aren’t houses. They’re unstable.”
A woman says, “She must have been sad with no doorway to frame her and no walls to hold her. I suppose she was unhappy because she had no house to grow up in and learn to be herself.”
I scratch the dirt with my toes and think they’re wrong, but I don’t know how. I don’t know if Nana was happy. And I hadn’t known that a tent wasn’t a house. I wonder then what walls I can grow up into if not those. I turn around and walk away from their monstrous forks.
I lived in a house that wasn’t my house, and I lived in a room that wasn’t my room. Out the window was a hill the color of clay, covered in scrub. The bed was my cousin Mosi’s, even though I slept in it with her. It was obvious it was hers because my blankets were yellow like soil. These were blue, like a bottomless lake. Mosi decided she liked blue when she went to school and the teachers told her the ocean was best. I kept my bird bones in a drawer with her shells and together we built white houses with bone frames and shell rooves.
Downstairs, someone knocked. Out the window, I saw it was a teacher and I hid in the cupboard in Mosi’s room. The teacher came sometimes and said I had to go to school, but she couldn’t come for me if I stayed in the cupboard. That’s what my aunt said. She said the woman would always go away. That sounded true. The cupboard was the smallest place in the house that I could fit. I knelt, folded up over my knees. Sometimes it was suffocating.
My aunt told the teacher I didn’t live in the scrubland. She said I lived with my parents in the mountains, even though that wasn’t true and they were dead. When the teacher left, my aunt came and knocked on the cupboard. She opened the door and I spilled out. I sprawled, my legs and arms going as far as they could, all the way until they knocked against the walls.
When I went down to dinner, my cousin jostled me out of my seat next to my aunt and I went to sit out of her reach.
“Did you take the mule up to the hill today?” my aunt asked.
I nodded. “I want the hill to be as tall as the mountain Nana lived on.”
My aunt served out the partridge’s breast meat with pine nuts and pennyroyal. “If it were a mountain, at the top you would find the circle tent in the cloud, just like the hero Oupa did when he went looking for Buzzard. He lives there now and teaches everyone who comes to him.”
“Nana met Oupa,” I said, clasping my hands very seriously. “She laid down under a blanket and in her dream she was a kestrel and flew to the top of the mountain. Oupa smiled when he saw her.”
My aunt pressed her lips together. “She told that story a lot.”
“I want to do that. In my dream, I’ll be a buzzard.” I added pepper and rosemary to my meat.
Mosi laughed, leaning back in her chair to slap the rug hanging on the wall. Every time she slapped it, she grabbed a little thread and pulled, so that someday it would unravel and she wouldn’t be embarrassed when her teacher came for dinner and frowned at the black goats leaping over the mountaintops.
“My teacher said that if you jump from the roof, you’ll die,” Mosi said. “She says it’s a lie that Warbler jumped from a gable and learned to fly.”
“Birds learn to fly by jumping from their nests,” my aunt said, her eyes down. She ate with her fingers, the grease running down her palms. “You used to like the legends about Oupa.”
“My teacher said bird meat is dirty.” Mosi wrinkled her nose at the plate and wouldn’t eat.
My aunt picked over her plate and I wished she’d say Mosi was wrong, but she said nothing.
In my dream, the sand is unfamiliar. Each time I kneel, I stand up far away from where I was a moment ago. I hate it.
I’m looking for Oupa. I think, far away, I see a mountain the color of sky. If I find it, I will find him and he’ll teach me all the mountain’s stories and how to be a buzzard. I don’t look at the women when they come up behind me, although the terrible scraping of their forks makes my shoulders rise and my spine tingle.
“The wind is hard on my face,” a woman says. “It burns my cheeks.”
“You should wear a scarf like my aunt,” I say. “It binds up her hair and keeps off the wind.”
“Why don’t you wear a scarf?” she says.
I put my hands up and I’m startled to find my hair uncovered, whipping around in the wind. “I lost it. I’ll get another scarf, when I go home.”
“What if you lose that too?”
For some reason I can’t answer the question. It’s too startling. Instead I ask, “If a tent isn’t a house, then why does Oupa live in a tent?”
A woman laughs, so loud that the soil shakes from the mountain in the distance, cascading orange into the sand. The mountain is left bare and I see it’s not a mountain, but only a rock, no taller than my hip. “Because he doesn’t know anything at all,” she says.
A woman spits. “It’s too barren. Bring the ocean here.”
I hunch my shoulder at the sprawling landscape. “I like the sand.” But I reach into the soil where it’s damp. A spring pops up as I pull back my hands.
A woman coos, “It makes me homesick. Oh, I miss squid.”
Mosi came back to the house jumping, kicking up her legs to show off her new hard shoes. They glistened and I asked her if they were made of beetle carapaces.
“No,” she said, and then wouldn’t tell me what they were made of. She put her hands on her hips. “I’m going to the ocean.”
“The mountain is better. In my dreams I’m going to the mountain.”
“You don’t really go places in your dreams.”
I hurled sand over her shoes so they got dirty. “I do.” I was so angry I almost hit her. “Just like Nana. I go somewhere else and you’re not there.”
“I’m going for real. My teacher says I’ll like the ocean so much, I won’t want to come back.”
I crouched down in the sand. “Why did they come here, if they don’t like it?” Many people came inland to escape the encroaching shoreline, the floods making the borders on the old maps all wrong, but there were still people near the ocean.
She licked her palms and leaned over to clean off her shoes. “Because they want to teach us to be good. The mountain people don’t know how to be good. But if I go to school on the beach, I can be better.”
“It’d be a long walk back in the evening.”
She laughed and it was like the women with their forks laughing. “I wouldn’t come home in the evening.”
I held my hands in a cage at my belly, horrified. I didn’t want to sleep in a house that was nearly empty, the wind rattling the loose windowpanes, or eat with just my aunt and the dripping dishes. “You aren’t going.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Yes I am.”
“I said you can’t go.”
“I don’t care.” She clapped her hands in my face, like my aunt did when she was angry.
I pushed her hands away. “Your mama won’t let you.”
“It doesn’t matter what she wants.”
I lunged, grabbing her through her sweater. She hit me in the nose as we fell and she screamed about dirtying her uniform. I squeezed her around the waist. I imagined the empty house again and shook all over. I didn’t want Mosi to leave me. I tried to map her body to mine, to match her concave belly over my hip, her spine around my arm. But she squirmed too much and when she hit my ear and set it ringing, I let go.
She scrambled to her feet, dust scrubbed into her uniform. Tears tracked down the dirt on her face. “I’m going to the ocean and I’m not coming back. No one can make me come back. I’ll go to school there and be better than you.” She turned and ran inside.
I curled up my knees and pretended I was in the cupboard, with the dark and the smell of pigeon. But it was too small, like I would never get out and would always be its cramped shape. I didn’t want to grow into the shape of the cupboard. I sat up and wished a tent were a house.
My mule came around the house. She gnawed on the white shrubs beside me until I reached up and rubbed her flank. Her mane was full of dust. “Mosi doesn’t mean it,” I told the mule. “She won’t leave. She’d miss the drawer with her little towels and the pegs to hang her shoes. The ocean is too wide and terrible for her.” My mule gummed my hand.
When I came into the house, dirt up and down my knees, my aunt sighed. “I’ve told you not to jump on Mosi like that.”
“She said bad things to me.”
“What did she say?”
I didn’t tell her. It would be more true if I said it. I would keep the words in my belly and make Mosi a liar. I sat in the corner and pretended it was a little house just for me.
“Can I sleep in the attic?” I asked while she stoppered the sink and poured in water. The attic had once been a dovecote. Doves were very sacred on the mountain, but I’d never seen one. “I’ll sleep on a rug and hang walnuts and garlic like Nana did in the mountain.”
My aunt shook her head. “I want Mosi to be in the room with you.”
“Why? She doesn’t get scared at night anymore. Not since her teacher told her Owl doesn’t come at night to steal children’s tongues. She says owls are stupid and crabs are better, because their shells are their houses and they fit inside them perfectly.”
My aunt muttered something I didn’t understand, which sounded ugly and mean. “She’s still very young.”
“She doesn’t like me sleeping with her. I want to sleep in the dovecote.” The dovecote roof came to a point like a tent. But it wasn’t a tent so it could be a good house where I could learn how to be myself.
She handed me a dish and I just held it. “I need it for storage,” she said.
She started soaping the dishes and I held the plate tighter. “But there’s nothing up there. Just old rugs and baskets.”
She made a tch sound with her teeth that meant she was done arguing.
I set the plate into the water, holding it with the tips of my fingers, hoping it would float. It didn’t. I scrubbed with the heel of my hand. I felt bad for being upset and hoped I could make my aunt smile. “Were there really doves?”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “A long time ago, when I was a girl. We ate dove when there were guests and to celebrate the day my father came down from the mountain. He said coming down was a good decision. The traders liked him, even though he didn’t eat their fish.”
I set the plates up to dry on the rack. “What happened to the doves?”
“When I was eleven, I told my teacher I didn’t want to go to school anymore. She said I had to. Until I was sixteen, I would go to school. But I wanted to stay home and tend to the doves. My teacher came for dinner and she said we shouldn’t eat bird. It made our bones brittle. It scared papa and he got rid of all the doves. Lots of other families were told to get rid of their doves too and soon all the doves were gone.”
I rubbed my thumb on the tines of a fork and made faces at it. “Why would everyone give their doves away?”
She crooked her chin into her shoulder and whispered, “I found a dove with a bullet hole in its belly.”
“Not everyone agreed to get rid of their doves.” Her shoulders lifted gently, with a kind of long-drawn weariness.
“Was Nana upset that you didn’t have dove for her when she visited?”
She clattered a cup into the sink. “Very angry. She called papa a weak son. She said he didn’t respect his family’s traditions. That’s why she took me out of school and brought me up to the mountain, even when the teachers sent men after her to bring me back. We stayed away from them for three years.”
I smiled. I’d never lived in the mountains. My mother was a little girl when she came down with her family. I thought sometimes that nothing would be the same if I’d been born in a bed, with walls to hold me like a second womb. Or if I’d been born in a cave, held by stone and a sheet of rain across its mouth. But I was born in a gully and I tumbled out like water from a pipe. The shock of me spilled over and soaked the landscape. I was a flooded road, shallow and clear and so still it was like a hole into the sky.
My aunt’s stories about the mountains made me proud and jealous. I wanted to climb a mountain because it went on forever like the scrubland, but it had caves and cliffs and crags and definition.
She put her hand on my head. “Where’s your scarf?”
“I lost it in my dream. The wind blew it away. Can I have one of yours?”
“You put it on the windowsill and left the window open, you mean. That was very clumsy.”
I scowled. That wasn’t what I meant.
She sighed. “Now I have to buy another.”
“If we were in the mountains, I would invite a woman to dinner and she would make you a good scarf.”
“I’ll go to the mountain in my dream and get a scarf.”
She shook her head and I snuck guiltily out of the house with her green scarf that showed the coils of my hair underneath. I took my mule to the hill. Maybe I’d run away to the mountain to get another scarf. That was a bad thought, because I lay down in the heather on the hill and stood up hours away, the squat village like rocks among the yellow bushes. But the mountain was still far away, just a tear in the horizon.
My mule snorted as I mounted up. It took us a long time to get back. At the edge of town, a woman looked at us out her window and came out around the front of her house. I tried to turn away, but she came out too fast.
“Good evening,” she said. It was the teacher who wanted to take me to school. “Not many people around here have mules.” She leaned down and scratched my mule’s jaw. “I hear they’re not very cleanly.”
I held tight to my mule’s mane. “They’re tenacious. She loves me and takes me where I want.”
The woman flicked her fingers like she was dislodging dust and gnats from under her nails. She smelled like fish. “Are you from around here?”
I wanted to say yes. It was my town and I knew it very well. “No.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m riding through.”
She smiled, her eyes pinching. “Haven’t we met before? I remember. You said you were riding through then too.”
“I ride through a lot.”
“Mosi’s mother wears a scarf like that.”
“She got it from my mother. My mother makes these scarves. No one else makes them like this.” I remembered then that my aunt had bought the scarf in town and flushed with fear.
The teacher locked her fingers together. “Perhaps you’d like to come in for supper.”
I shook my head.
“I insist. You must be hungry. I have red tea, fresh from the fields, and sole fillet with mint.”
“I don’t like fish.”
“You don’t know how good it is. This is what happens, when you grow up on birds. Everything else scares you. You’re flighty.”
“I have to get where I’m going.” I dug my heels into my mule’s side, jerking her away from the woman. The woman watched me go, her stance trim and disappointed.
I rushed inside when I got to the house. It was dark and the walls stretched away into a terrifying vastness. It was like they weren’t there at all. I climbed into bed with Mosi. She didn’t like me holding her at night, but I squeezed up against her, staring until I found all the corners in the room.
It isn’t my dream. Or I think it’s not. The sands unravels behind me and I stand on the ocean shore. The water goes on forever, dizzying. It’s unfair that I should find the ocean, when I can’t find the mountain.
A woman stops beside me and jams her fork into the sand. She takes a deep and satisfied breath. Ahhh, she breathes.
“I’ll send the ocean away,” I say.
She gazes up, the skin crinkling around her eyes. “This is home, sweetheart.”
I shake my head hard.
Her coat is like stone. “If your cousin goes to the ocean, you could go to school with her,” she says. “Then you wouldn’t miss her.”
“But I would miss my aunt.”
“If you were in a schoolhouse all day, you would be better. You would always sit in the same seat and know where you should be. And there’s a drawer in the desk for you to keep your things.”
“Can I lock it?” I’ve never had a thing before that I could lock.
“Good students can keep locked boxes inside their desk. If you went to school, you could bring your friends to the house and say, ‘This is my home. This is where I live.’ “
I like the idea. Then I could tell the teacher I live here and I’m growing into the shape of my house. “What about the mountain?”
Tsk, a woman says, tsk. “The mountain is a bad place to live. It’s dangerous. There are no houses, so everything is unstable.”
“Oupa lives in a big tent. My aunt says that’s his house.” But I don’t feel very certain about it.
I try to imagine Oupa on the waves, kneeling in a boat, crouched on a reed mat with the sea birds and the white seashells. But it’s impossible. My dream cracks around my waist, nearly breaking in half with the impossibility of it. Oupa can’t come here, not ever. If he saw me now, he’d say I was the wrong shape and he couldn’t teach me. I hold onto a woman’s coat, wanting to step into the black recesses that are like tall walls, so that I don’t crack all the way through.
My aunt stood with her hands hovering over the open cupboards. She stared at the lemons and the pepper and the barley flour. Her hands rested on a tin of red tea leaves, which she bought in the summer and said were very expensive. Her hands slipped to the dried mutton and salted pheasant.
I watched her from the doorway, my toes up against the lintel.
“If only I had a scrap of fish,” she muttered.
Goosebumps ran up and down my arms and I put my hand on the doorframe so I wouldn’t find myself a great distance away. “Should I kill a chicken?”
Her hands scrunched, fingers folding up tight against her palm. “Yes.”
I killed a chicken outside and plucked the feathers, putting them in my pocket for pillows. Mosi came and crouched nearby, squinting. Her hair tumbled down her back, whipping over her mouth.
“My teacher’s coming for dinner,” she said. “Are you going to hide in the cupboard?”
I shrugged, even though I didn’t want to go into the cupboard. There was a stiffness in my throat and I was afraid if I went in there, I would cry. It wasn’t a good shape.
“How do you do that?” she asked
“Nana taught me.” She died when I was young, but I remembered plucking birds was important. I held out the chicken and Mosi crept forward. I showed her how to grasp the feather so she wouldn’t tear the skin.
When Mosi’s teacher came, I didn’t go to the cupboard. I sat in the closet under the stairs where I could look through a crack in the panels, and sucked on my fingers. If I decided I liked the teacher, maybe I could come out. The teacher came in a flower printed skirt, which flapped against her knees. She smiled and took my aunt’s hand with only her fingers.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I brought a little something for dinner. I came home early today and I had extra time. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if I brought something to share?”
My aunt nodded, small. She picked up the chicken, which we’d cooked into a thick stew with bay leaves.
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean to supplant your own meal.” But she let my aunt take the stew away, and replaced it with her own plate. It was a fish of some sort, large and white and stuffed with sweet-smelling pears and apples. It smelled good.
The teacher insisted everyone wash their hands in the sink, scrubbing between their fingers before they ate. Everyone sat very quietly. My aunt didn’t eat with a fork usually and she grasped the handle with her whole hand. The teacher held the fork with the ends of her fingers so that it dipped gracefully. She smiled at Mosi, who blushed and looked very proud. It made me jealous.
“Your daughter is a wonderful student,” the teacher said.
My aunt nodded.
“You mustn’t be concerned that I’m coming with bad news.” She spoke with her hands, holding them out like she hoped my aunt would grasp them warmly. “Don’t look so worried. I don’t have one bad thing to say about her.”
Mosi grinned at her mother, who didn’t look at her. “Yesterday,” Mosi said, “We learned about the new houses they’re building on the coast to withstand the flooding.”
Her teacher smiled encouragingly. I imagined building a small house out of seashells and the teacher looking at me like that. Maybe I could learn good things at the school and then grow into the shape of the house instead of its cupboards and closets.
“I’m very excited,” the teacher said. “You see, there’s a lovely boarding school by the seashore. Very safe, of course, and not too near the water. I went to visit last month. It’s cleaned every day and the students can play on the beach. There’s fresh fish in the morning and once a week they go fishing.”
My aunt chewed fast, like she was trying to swallow before the teacher could finish speaking. But the fish went back and forth in her mouth and she couldn’t seem to swallow.
The teacher beamed. “We’d like to send your daughter there.”
My aunt coughed, spitting up a half-chewed piece of bone and fish.
The teacher jumped. I did too.
“I’m sorry,” my aunt said. As if to remedy her fault, she cut off another piece of fish and put it in her mouth.
“That is to say,” the teacher said, her hand on her chest, “all the students will be going there, eventually. But we’d like to send your daughter sooner.”
“Mama, I have to go,” Mosi said, hopping up onto her knees. A shock of horror went through me.
My aunt waved her back and Mosi slid down on her seat. When my aunt swallowed, it was like something huge was going down her throat, bulging the skin tight.
The teacher put out her hand. “I know it’ll be hard for your daughter to move so far away. But you can visit. Or you can move to the shore, even. We’ll help you buy a house and find a job, maybe skinning fish or somesuch.”
“Yes, mama,” Mosi said. “Come live with me.”
My aunt stared at her daughter, her eyes wide and confused. “I’ve lived in this house my whole life.”
“Your daughter told me that your father came down the mountain as a young man. Wouldn’t it be following in his footsteps to move to the ocean?”
My aunt blinked at her. It was as if the woman had slipped her father under her nails like slivers of wood. “I could see Mosi then?”
I put my face against the panel, the wood smell strong in my nose. I thought of yelling to her that she couldn’t go because then I would be alone. My body would spill over the scrubland and I’d vanish.
“Of course. It is a boarding school, so she’ll sleep over. But she can visit you on the weekend, if she chooses.”
My aunt set aside her fork. “I don’t see any reason why she should go earlier than the other students.”
Mosi gripped her fork, bits of fish still caught on the tines. “Don’t you think I’m a good student?”
“Of course you’re a good student,” my aunt mumbled.
“Your daughter will benefit by going early. It’s a better school.”
“I don’t want her to go.”
The teacher folded her fingers together, poised over her fork. “There’s another thing.” She glanced around the house, frowning at the rugs on the walls, the sunflower seed oil on the counter, the unwashed dishes. I shrunk back into the closet. “Your niece.”
“She doesn’t live here,” my aunt said automatically.
The teacher sighed, her shoulders heaving up in exasperation. “We’ve played this ruse for a long time. We’ve let you get away with it and we shouldn’t have. We know your niece lives here, and it’s illegal to keep her from school.”
Mosi glanced at the stairs and squeezed down in her chair, shoving fish into her mouth. I was terrified that the teacher would stand up and thrust her hand into the closet and drag me to school right now. I wouldn’t go to school if they meant to send me to the ocean.
“The next semester starts with the rainy season. Mosi will go to the school on the shore and your niece will start school here. It’ll be better for everyone.”
My aunt shook her head, but said nothing. The teacher wiped her mouth and popped up cheerily. “Thank you so much for supper. Please, keep what’s left of the fish. It’s my gift to you.”
When she was gone, my aunt slid down until her head sunk into her arms. Mosi sat still, staring at her mother collapsed across the table. I leaned against the closet door, the doorknob pushing painfully into my hip, needing someone to say it wasn’t true. Mosi stood, clenching her hands opened and closed, and left the room.
In my dream, the wind ripples the ocean waves, hushes, holds still. But then the tide gushes up the beach, washing over my knees, and I slosh out with the water, tumbling over the waves. I’m drowning. I catch my throat in my hands and bubbles pour of my mouth. There’s nothing here to hold me. I spill until I am so big and thin that it’s like I’m nothing at all.
I got up early so Mosi couldn’t leave for the ocean without talking to me. My tongue was thick with salt. My aunt stayed inside, putting chicken stew into small pots sealed with leather caps. She moved slowly, stopping often to stare out the window. Mosi sat outside on her suitcase, rubbing her nose red.
“Do you think it’ll be cold?” she said. “What if my sweater is too thin?”
“Wear a scarf over your hair.” I scuffed my heels in the dirt.
“It’s not allowed at the new school.”
But she wore a scarf now, which she hadn’t done in months. It tucked neatly under her sweater collar, crafted into a perfect curve against her back.
“You could wear it if you weren’t being stupid and going,” I said.
She stiffened. “I have to go.”
I wrinkled my nose at the road winding toward the school and the car that would come for her. “I’ve never slept alone before.”
“They’ll make you go too.”
I scratched my wrists and rammed my toes against the step. “Nana would be angry.”
I shoved her and she grabbed my hand, holding tight to my wrist. She looked at me and squeezed and squeezed. “Ow,” I said. But she didn’t let go, just kept squeezing until my wrist cramped. “Ow!” I shouted, jerking away.
She clasped her hands and stared down at her lap. “I wish you’d come.”
“No. I hate the ocean. I hate it.”
She buffed the side of her shoe with her wrist. “You’ve never seen it.”
“I want to go to the mountains.”
“What if there’s no one left there anymore?”
I pushed my heels hard against the step. “They’re still there. They’ll teach me how to set up a tent and whenever I’m afraid of how big everything is, I’ll set up my tent and sit inside.”
Under her breath, like she was saying something forbidden, she asked, “Can you dream about the ocean and visit me?”
The sky spun and I had to sit down. I put my arm around her. “Yes.”
She flushed and straightened her cuffs. “I’ll write letters.”
The door rattled and banged, catching on the frame as my aunt came out with a pot for lunch. Mosi put it in her bag. My aunt crouched behind us and fiddled with Mosi’s scarf.
“What if we ran into the mountains like me and my grandmother did, when I was a girl?” my aunt said, very quiet.
I squeezed my hands shut. I wanted that very much. But my aunt would never go.
Mosi patted her bag, checking that everything was there. Then she stood, brushed off her uniform, and grabbed her mother around the waist. She held so tight her mother gasped and her hand fluttered indecisively over Mosi’s back.
Then the car came and she left us standing alone on the stoop.
I sit in the surf, water dripping down my back and my clothes soaked through. When I twist out my hair, a river spills away. The ocean waves beat against my chest. I’m so angry I want to cry. All the ocean does is take people away. Nana wouldn’t have gone. She knew the mountain was where she should be and was happy in her tent. Why couldn’t a tent be a house? It was as much a house as anything.
The mud sticks and scrapes when I stand. But when I’m on my feet, I see something caught on the waves. I run to it and when I snatch it up, it’s my scarf, the one I lost in my other dream. I wring it out and bind it over my hair.
In the morning, it started to rain. As I tucked my hair behind my scarf, I realized it was the scarf I found in my dream. I went into the kitchen and found my aunt opening drawers loudly. She hadn’t slept. I’d heard her moving around all night, stacking plates and pouring water and then sitting at the table, the chair creaking when she shifted.
“You’ll go to school today,” she said.
I shook my head.
She rubbed her face, holding herself up on the counter with her left hand. “You have to go. I’ll be arrested if you stay here.”
“I’m going to be a buzzard!”
She stared down at her hand. “I’ll still tell you stories about Oupa in the evening. We’ll sit outside and look for his home in the clouds.”
“They’ll send me to the ocean.” My arms flopped over the table like awful cooked fish. “I went to the ocean in my dream and I drowned.”
Her hands went over the sink, rubbing and rubbing so it said shush, shush. “You didn’t go anywhere. You just dreamed about it because you were thinking about the ocean.”
“I found my scarf in my dream last night.” I held up the scarf to show it was true.
She snapped her hands together. “You lost it under the bed or stuffed it into the bottom of your chest.”
“No. Nana went places in her dreams.”
“No she didn’t. It was a good story. She couldn’t do that.” She grabbed a plate and set it down in front of me. Honey pooled over yesterday’s bread.
I stared at her as she sat down and started eating. She didn’t look at me. The corners of her mouth were firm and angry. I didn’t understand how she could say that about Nana. It was the most impossible thing she’d ever said.
“You can’t travel places in your dreams,” she said.
I knocked against the walls. I spilled out the open door and the window. I drowned in the arid air.
I didn’t finish breakfast. I packed lunch and extra food because I’d always eaten when I wanted and I was terrified of being told I could only eat at a certain time. Outside, through the drizzle, I searched for Oupa’s circle tent in the clouds. It began to rain so hard the world turned grey and brown. My scarf plastered to my hair. I splashed through water, looking for my mule. Everything vanished into the downpour.
The house was dim and hazy. All the lamps were out and it was floating at sea, vast and empty. My heels sank into the mud and I was floating too. My skin crawled. The house was a bad shape. If I went in it again, it would crush me with its twisted rooms and slippery stairs and bent doorways. It was the wrong shape.
In the mountains, I would find a cave and the cave would hold me until the rains passed.
When I found my mule, I packed the saddlebags and mounted quickly, urging her on to the slippery road. The town was blue, vanishing in the coming tide. I could be anywhere, or nowhere. Water ran down my back and chest and my pants stuck to my thighs. My aunt would stay here forever, drifting aimlessly. I watched a buzzard fly under the clouds, its feathers black with rain. It was going toward the mountain. When it got there, people might see it and then tell how Oupa and Buzzard became friends. They would tell it inside their tents and they wouldn’t mind that the walls flapped in the storm, because that was the shape they’d grown into. If I were there, I’d grow into that shape too, instead of a rigid, crooked house.
I pulled my mule around, digging my heels so hard into her sides that she leapt. She landed at a gallop and we pounded out of town.
“We’ll go to the mountains,” I said into her ear, mud from her hooves splashing against my shins. “Our family lived at the rim of the mountain and they weren’t hard to find. Oupa will teach me to be persistent like Buzzard and strong like Nana. I’ll sit in a tent and grow into it and it’ll be my home. I think maybe tents aren’t houses, but they can still be homes.”
In the evening, the rain cleared. The mountains were white and red slips on the horizon, cutting out a small space for themselves in the sky. By morning they were bigger than even the women with their forks, and I could see smoke from cook fires. I imagined Oupa when he first came to the mountain, watching in wonder as Buzzard flew up and up and up and yet never seemed to reach the top. When Oupa finally reached the foothills, he put his hips and knees against the mountain crags and found that he fit. I reached the mountain that evening and as we went up the rocky paths, the peaks rose up like tents.