Mu Arae

Cervantes wears the same overcoat bejewelled entirely with shells of pocket mirrors. He’s sauntered far from the robots and into the late afternoon congestion. I refuse to see him. Not much has changed in the past four years of window-washing and handing out handwritten notes in exchange for small change. Little has changed, rooted to this junction, so the wear and tear and the hunching of his back over these years had happened unnoticed.

Today, 17:42
2 Missed Calls from Moon

Black mothership clouds crawl beneath the sky overhead, inching nearer to meet me as I begin to roll again towards the crossing. I smell rain in the air—not merely a whiff of petrichor drifting about, but such a rain that’s altered air into a warm fabric of all things above and below. Thunder rumbles low and over Simphiwe Dana’s bewailing of bygone days as she rides a soft galloping drum through radio speakers. Lambent flowers of light sprout up and flicker over Midrand like fire in the belly of a beast, flashing bowels of the apocalypse that soon stretches its black arms over me; bringing with it wind that rattles trees lining Katherine Street, twisting their branches and shedding leaves that flit about the creeping traffic like fruit bats.

Alexandrans returning from manual work in the Sandton Central start to make haste on lighted footways. And at once, bags of water plummet to earth, fall over the expanse of suburbia; pelting my windscreen and the newly paved road, turning it into a silver ocean of tar; gathering rapidly and dousing the rank smell of fresh bitumen and the heat left by the day’s sun.

I turn Ndim’ Nawe down into a dreamy encomium to the arrival of a long-awaited friend.

Cervantes moves yet unperturbed—a disco ball spinning and rolling in a labyrinth of cars. Fences with the rain. I want to video him and send him to Moon. Such things make her laugh. Such things she responds to with yellow chains of laughing emoji faces. I’d respond the same. Thirteen weeks have passed she graduated a month-long online course in fashion design. Specialising in haute couture, she’d say. Now, sadly however, the topic is as foreign as asking me for data. I don’t know where she gets it from now seeing that she remains unemployed. I’ve stopped wanting to know.

Today, 18:26
Whatsapp Message from Moon: Hi babe. Been tryin 2 call u all day. Sorry I missed yr call in the mornin. Was it the dream again?

The robot has turned green. I don’t see it, so the car behind me blares her horn that I must move.

I watch Cervantes in the rear-view mirror, rain beading off him in a rush of streetlight, as he fades slowly into a mass of cars and people. People, all rising against the rain, not walking home as they were but marching upwards into the black sky the farther away I drive—climbing like robots into the apocalypse.

I watch everything behind me disappear into dark folds of the storm, and I think about his raw unabated stubbornness—I think about the day he sprayed water harshly and unbidden over the Hyundai while it slowly rolled to a stop, and how the rubber blade of his squeegee got entangled with my windscreen wiper, leading to the scuffle that saw his Sunlight plastic tube go sliding beneath several cars and finally bursting into foam under the wheel of a taxi. I think about how all of it now appears to have been erased from him, as he waves a new squeegee, touches his knuckles to the window to solicit a fist-bump. I refused to see him even yesterday, his dark hand coolly lifting the wiper he almost destroyed, to put under it a note written in a form of uncial and walking away like he had committed a crime as JMPD signalled me to move.

I plod through the downpour on reserve tank. My phone vibrates again from the center console as I carefully accelerate down the on-ramp and onto the M1 North.

Today, 18:54
Whatsapp Message from Moon: Anyway, wt r yr plans now that u’re gettin retrenched?

I decide to pull into the BP garage by Marlboro Drive, dig for a remaining morsel of decencies from my wallet. I find a meagre twenty-six-rand, then reach for the five-rand coin fixed to the bottom of the cupholder from the Coke spill of the week before when I plugged the can in it and jumped out of the car and confronted Cervantes. It refuses to budge. The attendant, who’s either the manager or the owner of the station, lending a hand on a busy stormy evening, seeing me struggle, moves over to the Range behind me, and without delay returns and brazenly orders me to move up and make way.

Finally, I free the coin from the hole, but it’s too late, he’s made up his mind, already punching numbers at the petrol pump while the nozzle gun is clutched up in the one hand poised to shoot.

I move, but all pumps are taken by queues of anxious patrons. I wait.

Today, 19:04
Whatsapp Message from Moon: Babe

In the dream, I stand on a mountain of light—a landfill of pocket mirrors. Dark water gathers around me and I begin to drown. Then, suddenly I swim up until my feet find ground, to wade in the water back towards the mountain of light which collapses at each step I take. By the time I reach it, it’s totally collapsed and buried under water, and I realise that I’ve drowned; my body lies asleep on the seafloor, but I’m conscious. Outside of it looking in, I feel water fill up my lungs, the weight of the ocean tamped down my ears. My phone alarm rings. I can hardly hear it.

That’s the version I keep retelling.

In the true version of the dream, I stand on a mountain of light. I’m wearing a crown made of styrofoam, hung aslant and almost falling over my eyes. I carry a rusted pail, emptied, yet heavy. Down at the bottom of the mountain, her head sticks out from a body of dark water crying out: Hail to the king! It’s a crown she constructed, and only apologised for having over-measured my head after I had tumbled down the mountain, fell right beside her, into water filled with naked men.

In the car she’d sing:
Xa ubumnyama sebufikile
Ndimi nawe

I’m thinking I should call her, unbutton my heart about our future. Cervantes’s message of yesterday is shred into jigsaw puzzle pieces that clog the scuttle panel. I try to piece it together in my mind, all the while staring at the broken words thinning in the rain.

MU ARAE, I PRAY YOU SEE THE SUN.

At school, he had a knack for decorative writing that whirled eyes and dizzied our minds only he and the teachers could read. Calligraphy, our English teacher once said, you should become a calligraphist. Envy grew fast among us after hearing those fancy words, and again we nagged him in the mornings wanting to copy his homework, all wanting to be calligraphists.

Rainfall comforts warring senses, the jarring of nerves, still and all I strain at the leash to get going. In the rear-view mirror, I watch the well-dressed attendant scurry out of view in search of a speed-point. As soon as he’s returned, I crank the engine back to life while his benefactor punches in his pin. He takes it back with a swift hand and we all stare as he keeps lifting it up in the air oddly searching for signal. A surge of worry turns my blood into sap that strains into my heart: a raw sense that my life has been a condition of waiting.

I grab hold of my phone mulling over chances Moon might not answer my calls later when I do decide to call her back and the likelihood of it ruining the night—a tug at seams of a carefully quilted cape; another, and I’m naked again—possibly fifteen unanswered calls by dawn; the unexplainable lag between 9pm and 6am.

The fuel gauge remains blood red. The sight of it and all lights and instruments surrounding it start to blur.

Xa amehlo ephenduk’itye

When I come to, another speed-point is handed to the owner of the Range. He hands it back to the attendant, who again searches laboriously for signal.

Today, 19:25
Whatsapp Message from Moon: Mu Arae!

The sky hangs in utter darkness and the M1 North seems like the only road left in the world. The Range turbocharges behind me flashing his Xenon lights that I must move out of the fast lane. I quickly oblige, and as soon as he’s vanished before me, I beam headlights high again through the falling of rain.

Copyright © 2019 Abbey Khambule. First Published in New Contrast, 2019