Carla Durbach

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The Properties of Water

The professor’s mother is dying.

His brothers sacrifice goats to the ancestors in the backyard until the blood runs in spurts, staining their hands and the grass crimson. They barbecue the meat afterwards and invite the neighbors. But the cancer remains, digging in from the inside, taking root and spreading.

Soon, his mother is confined to night chills and feverish dreams of summer rain and thunderstorms, and crisp midnight air. Confined to longing for the pulsing beat of the blistering African sun. Later, the professor is summoned by a phone call and told to get on a plane.

He doesn’t think the ancestors are listening. Why speak to the dead when it is the living that crave you? Perhaps, he thinks, that is the point.

The morning light filters through the curtains, threading and falling softly on his wife’s face. She bats at her cheek, grumbles something and turns over in the throes of sleep. The bed groans beneath her pregnant bulk. Sometimes, after a long day, the baby kicks at the walls of flesh and then his wife stops mid-sentence, eyes widening in amazement as she draws her husband’s hand to her round, moon belly. The professor’s heart beats a little faster then.

In bed, he is conscious of every breath, of the warmth of his skin, of nerve endings on fire. His thoughts evade capture. Have him lying awake for hours. Waiting for the phone to ring with fatal news so that his stomach will drop and his hands will tremble as he changes the reservation, maybe too late.

But the phone call doesn’t come. Plans remain. Tomorrow evening, come six o’clock, he will leave the only life he has known for the past twenty years. Seems like centuries since he has been back there. Now that he calls another place home.

In the kitchen he brews the tea, and thinks about his trip to Johannesburg, where his mother is dying. The twenty hours of travel, stuck in flying, roaring monsters that defy the laws of gravity, spread thinly between life and death on different continents. He thought he had left it all behind, buried under miles of stretched out sky, but somehow it has come back for an appointment.

He brings the cup to his lips, sips, scalds his tongue, slams the cup into the sink. Tea everywhere, flying shards of ceramic taking refuge in the corner where counter and wall meet, on the window sill, inside the small terracotta pots with the basil and the thyme. The cutting edge of nutrition, now sliced.

Mother, mother, I am on my way, he wants to say but the words don’t come.

“You must go.” His wife says. She is brave and independent, and speaks her mind and shuns her umbrella when storms threaten. She was born and bred in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has a thick skin as a result. Either that or she would risk being flayed.

The professor’s skin is thinner, worn down by ancient battles, where silence was as swords. Equally jagged and sharp. There was no space in between.

“You think you’re white now?” One of his brothers asked when he broke the news at the age of eighteen. A scholarship abroad to study the classics and ancient history. Fraternizing with the enemy, a roll in the hay with the colonial oppressors. How. Could. You.

“All set up for the American dream, hey?” Said the other, clicking his tongue. “Mr. freaking poetry. Just remember where you’ve come from.”

The professor wondered how he would ever forget.

His father sat by the window, reading the newspaper. A railway crash in Kagiso, more violent demonstrations downtown, a teen raped and abandoned in a field. A robust woman with a pixie hairstyle smiled at him from the back page, the winner of a vast sum of money in the Lotto draw.

“Oh, stop it, you two.” His mother came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, eyes glazed with pride and sorrow “If you had the chance you would take it, too.”

His father carried on reading the newspaper.

The professor packed his bags, a small suitcase and a backpack – he didn’t own much. He filled them with clothes, toiletries, books, fear, defeat, resentment – all the necessary tools in life – and left the next morning for the airport. Left a note for his mother, nothing else. In the beginning, he would phone to speak to her, to let her know he was still alive. Surviving. But he would call when he knew there was no one else at home.

He looks up to see his wife halfway down the stairs, rubbing her eyes, sluggish.

“Are you coming back to bed? It’s Saturday.”

Her voice is a balm. Like being lost for decades and finally being returned home. The relief lodges inside him, curling and settling there.

“I’ll be up in a minute, with offerings.”

She smiles and walks back upstairs, carefully and slowly, feeling for each solid step, one hand on the railing.

They met in college, she was studying law while he was hiding between the pages of Homer, Ovid and Hesiod, adrift and bloated with strange words. Navigating the library aisles. He wasn’t looking for anyone or anything, but she was persistent. She felt sorry for him even though she denies it‒ he thinks that she did. He has little to offer, apart from the hollow husk of his body, and he is surprised it ignited life. He wonders what kind of man his son will turn out to be. Wonders if his son will hold his own in the world of real men.

After breakfast he falls asleep on the bed, to the echo of water gushing in the shower. His wife no longer uses the bath tub, the strain shows on her face when she has to heave herself up from reclining. She sings softly while she lathers and he lets his muscles relax, sinking deep into the unknown as her silhouette fades. He dreams of rain, of waterfalls. His mother’s arms reaching for him across the water but she is a mist, dissolving between his fingers.

He wakes up with a start, breathless and sweat drenched. Clutching the bed sheet with his fisted hands.

This time, when he packs, the clothes are lighter but everything else remains the same.


When I was a girl, my sisters and I would run barefoot down the dust path, toppling clumsily down the grassed embankment to the water, just to look at our rippled reflections.

‘Ai Amahle, you tempt the water spirits.’ My older sister was timid and fearful, always expecting some demon to be skulking amongst the reeds. During thunderstorms Lena would pull the covers over her head while the rest of us drank hot, milky tea and told ghost stories.

‘Ssh, there is no such thing.’ We had learned about God in Sunday school and the nightmares had ceased. But my voice quivered none the less.

There were crocodiles in the water. Sometimes they would approach the very edge of the river, submerged, looking like an undulated rock, gliding, and before long, the snap. My neighbor’s son was taken that way, while helping some tourists canoe across the river, until the water churned and two of them were never seen again. A white man and a black boy, never came up for a single breath. Not even a hand, a foot, a finger. There was no apartheid in that river.

Then it was the next day and I was all grown up. The water still held its magic. But I found that there were more frightening things than crocodiles or water spirits.


Turbulence keeps him awake for hours; the Poets of the English Language, from Tennyson to Yeats adorns his lap. He doesn’t know why he brought the book in the first place. His mind is muddled, his thoughts scattered, teeming with incoherence. He asks for water and a tall flight attendant with plaited hair and glossed fingernails brings him a plastic cup. He crushes it between his fingers, spilling it on himself and the woman beside him.

“I’m terribly sorry,” He says, “you see, my mother is dying.”

He mops at the water with a serviette, looks up to find the woman staring at him.

“Here.” He hands her a new serviette, hopes she doesn’t expect much conversation.

She tells him about her son, home from Afghanistan, mourning one of his legs, left behind on the combat field.

He imagines the leg, clad in army fatigues in the middle of a desert, left for the enemy to contemplate like a political statement. Like the crow in the Pauper’s Turnip Field, foreboding those who are at the very edge of death.

Now, the woman thanks God every day for the loss of the leg. She would rather have a handicapped son than a full casket. She is on her way to meet her sister in London. They haven’t seen each other for years. She wishes him well for his connecting flight.

The professor leans his head back and closes his eyes. His thoughts persist, the agitators. Inevitable, that coming home always entails loss of some kind.


My oldest sister has come back to see me. She only left a few days ago to take care of her family. Now she is back again. She says she is worried I will pass without her here, to hold my hand. But she knows that I am not afraid of death. She is really here to see my son.

He is coming. I can feel it in my bones. My youngest. He was always his aunt’s favorite. Her okuncane, her little one. Thoughtful, cautious, quiet. Like her, he avoided vivacious laughter, impulsive adventures. Always observing from the sidelines. His nose in a book of some sort. Shying away from the fireworks. Being bullied by his brothers. His father did not know what to do with him.

Now my son teaches at a foreign university, all about the great writers and things. People wrap themselves up in fancy words and serve up the bundles in paperbacks or hardcovers so that people like me can land up scratching their heads in bewilderment.

‘Ai, Lena,’ I say, ‘he came out of me, but he grew within you. Your heart gave life to my son and then, somehow, you transferred him to me, gifted me this child.’ She laughs when I say that. She knows we are connected and he is the cord between us.

My sister holds my tired hand between her own, she closes her eyes so that I do not see but her cheeks are moist.

‘Ai, watch it wena, I am not dead yet,’ I say. ‘Why do you go about crying like that?’


The last flight. He hangs behind, lets everyone else go before him. Out, out. He wants to shove them through the door of the plane, onto the jet bridge, then he will close the door and barricade himself inside until someone decides to fly him back. Of course, he does nothing of the sort.

The professor drapes his coat over his arm, stands luggage in hand, lingering at the back of the queue in dignified silence.

They give him trouble through security because of his American passport. He is supposed to have a South African one but he didn’t bother renewing it. They let him go with condemnation and a warning.

One of his brothers is waiting for him, restless on his feet, grey patches in his hair. His eyes light up when he sees him. They greet one another, solemn, as if they saw each other only yesterday.

“Sad times, little brother,” he says, “sad times.”

The professor nods, keeping his head down. He forgot how he used to do this frequently, keep his head down. At home, at school, walking through the neighborhood as if it was a war zone. He didn’t look around. There are some things that should remain unseen and then there are others that he likes to pretend about. If you don’t look something in the eye, maybe it won’t know you are there.


My son looks older, so much older. He has let his beard grow and his face has filled out, contouring around his smooth cheek bones giving him an air of poetic apprehension and uncertainty. He reaches for me the minute he walks in, the arms that clung to my legs so many years ago, wrap themselves around my frame as we embrace.

The last time I saw him was at his wedding and he was smiling so widely that I thought the room was filled with majestic stars. I was there as his mother, his witness, the only one from the family to be flown in and to attend. My husband had already left me, aligned himself with greener pastures and moved to the tip of the continent, the farthest edge. Maybe he jumped. I don’t know. The other two boys were married with children born or on the way.

My son danced with his bride.

I drank it up and it was as champagne bubbles, flowing down my throat. My faith returned to me, both invigorating and a delight, all at once cleansing and refreshing.

Now, we talk and talk. I tell him about the old man next door who comes and sits outside my window when I can’t sleep and plays me love songs. He plays Stimela and Hugh Masekela and some others I don’t recall. He tells me they were Mandela’s favorites.

‘I didn’t know you knew the president so intimately,’ I told him through the open window.

‘Woza Amahle, my beautiful one, we had a standing appointment, him and I,’ he said and then he laughed and played more music and I listened and the pain was less.

‘My son,’ I say as I draw him closer to me, ‘I need you to do something for me.’

‘Anything,’ he says.

‘I need to go to the water, to the river where I grew up, I need to go there.’

But you can’t, how can you go, so frail, so thin, so shrunken inside your skin‒ his eyes tell me.

‘My son,’ I say, ‘appearances are deceiving. Do this for me and don’t tell Lena. You Anti will drop one of her kidneys instantly if she hears about this.’

He nods. I touch his face with my fingertips.

‘Take me to the water, my son. And bring the old man along.’


He finds the old neighbor at the corner of the Street, by the traffic light, doing his habitual jig. Feet moving rhythmically back and forth, an old radio cassette player on his shoulder, running on batteries, music blaring. Now and then he lifts up his hand as if to signal with his finger. The shuttle taxis come to a screeching halt so close to him that they nearly touch him but the old man doesn’t flinch. When they realize he is not intending to go anywhere, some of the drivers fling curse words his way, wave their hands in exasperation. Others laugh and ask how he is. Then they take off down the road, lifting dust and flicking stones, because the passengers are getting restless.

When he sees him, the old man smiles, displaying yellowed, splintered teeth. The cassette player is leaned against the light post.

“Ah, Sawubona Uthisha.” Hello teacher, I see your dignity and respect.

The professor cringes at the greeting.

“Ngikhona.” I am here. Before you saw me, I did not exist.

“And tell me, Uthisha,” The old man inclines his head, “how is life treating you on the other side of the world?”

The professor tells him about the deserts and mountains, the snow-capped peaks, the arid plains, the way the sky turns from gray to pink to red over the months and finally to a burnt, glowing orange as the sun dissipates into the evening. The description helps him fade into the background.

“And tell me son, is it as beautiful and all this?” The old man extends his arm in sweeping motion.

They both smile and remain silent. Knowing that beauty is variant, temperamental and found in vistas, in tastes and smells and very, very dependent on who you happen to be with.

“Son,” the old man says, “give my greetings to your dear mother.”

The professor nods, buries his hands deep inside his pockets. He wants to thank the old man but his tongue is sticking to the roof of his mouth, collecting African dust. He wants to look the old man in the eye and tell him that his serenades have kept his mother company in the dark watches of night. The love notes slowly seeping through her skin, into her recesses and fractures, filling her up until she can lick them from the edge of her fingertips in the morning light.

He shakes his head, starts to walk back home, then remembers why he came in the first place, runs across the road towards the old man. Again.

At night, the professor misses his wife. It emerges as a deep ache whose edges claw from inside his chest and spread, expanding over the breadth of his frame until he can barely hold it in. A reckless urgency. He wants to feel the warmth of her body next to him, to hold her face in his hands, their son nested between them. When he speaks to her on the phone, he holds his breath. He asks his son, silently and secretly, to hold on. To wait for his return. And he thinks the boy understands, when he whispers it into the night, to the other end of the world. He imagines threads of words that hook into each other, bubbling up into the star speckled sky, at first a tower and then a bridge that arches and then stretches all the way across the Atlantic.

They are ready to leave at dawn. The professor’s mother cocooned in a blanket on the front passenger seat of the car. The old man in the back seat, bar cassette player.

It’s a conspiracy. Sneaking away like this. Anti Lena would have never permitted this. Would have raised her hands in alarm, gasping and making all sorts of clucking disapproving sounds, her soft body wobbling with reprobation: What if something happens? A sudden bout of coughing, a car accident, a crocodile. A crocodile? Yes, a crocodile, hidden in the water, lurking. I saw that man and that boy; both vanish with a splash. I was there when it happened.

But she wasn’t. She is still traumatized by hearing of the event and her mind has transformed it into a memory, made her a perpetual witness. Since then she always looks out for crocodiles in the water and on land. They are the enemy. Crouching around the corner, waiting. All those razor, sharp teeth and long mouths. Could swallow you whole or chomp you in half with one bite.

Escape is imminent until Anti appears in front of the car, in her raincoat and hat, clutching her handbag to her body as if it will take off running down the street if she lets it go.

“Where do you think you are going?” She demands. Marches indignantly to the side of the car and yanks the door open. The old man shuffles further in to let her have some space. The car sags beneath her weight.

“Don’t even think about taking my sister anywhere without me.” She props her handbag on her chest, scowling, “You should know better than that,” she wags her finger at the professor who watches her vigilantly through the rear-view mirror.

She then turns towards her neighbor. “As for you, old man, don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to, batting your eyes at my sister, with your music and such, doing the dance of love. You just watch yourself and keep your hands where I can see them.”

The professor looks at his mother on the seat next to him. Tears squeezing out from the corners of her eyes, shimmering down her face. At first, he worries that the pain overwhelms, that the grief has finally come. But no.

He sees her now.

Eyes tightly shut, throwing back her head, as she howls with laughter.


I am nearly at the water’s edge, so close to baptism that I can almost taste it. I read somewhere that the Jews had special baths for ceremonial purposes, used to purify their bodies for God before approaching the altar. I shoot out a prayer to the one who holds me in place.

I have always longed for water, not the blood of goats but when you’re this old and this sick, nobody listens or maybe they are only desperate.

‘My son,’ I say, ‘you must let go.’

He looks at me, frowning.

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘whatever you’re holding, whatever you’ve seen and carried all the way with you to America, it is now time to let it go.’

I motion towards the river.

My son is looking at me as if I have lost my mind.

‘Listen my son,’ I say as I grasp his arm, ‘we have come here, not for me. I have made my peace long ago and many times I have dipped my whole body into that water and let it wash over me. But you are carrying a weight, pressing down on you from within and now is the time to set it free and let the water take it, down into the ocean.

‘Don’t worry my son, do you not know?

‘That the tendency to oppress is not determined by the tone of one’s skin. Betrayal comes in so many colors as does loyalty and love and surrender. We think we’re alone. Look around you, my son, there’s still so much to be known.’


The professor stands up to his waist in flowing water, holding onto his mother, the current strong enough to draw them down. Anti Lena is standing, shrieking at the edge of the river. The old man attempts to calm her but he is knocked back by a wallop from her handbag.

“There are no crocodiles in there.” He tries to tell her but Anti is beyond being reasoned with.

The professor looks at his mother. In her eyes are dancing stars, glimmers of hope, threads of fire and of light. He doesn’t know how long they have before the sun goes down, before the waters begin to rise.

And that’s all right.

Carla Durbach has published her psychology research in academic journals such as Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in South Africa and the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. She is tentatively branching out into the world of fiction, a world which she enjoys inhabiting now and then. She lives in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and three ninja cats who are plotting to take over the world.

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