The worst was the smell, and the unidentifiable, chunky slime.
I have this profound childhood memory of walking with my grandfather on the farm, when we found an ewe lying on the ground, on one of those broad granite boulders surfacing from the grass. It was almost evening. She was groaning and struggling, clearly in labour and in considerable pain. My grandfather knelt down to examine her and I tried to calm the poor animal by holding her head and covering her eyes. I must have been about ten years old, maybe a bit younger.
We found that she was battling to give birth to twins, both of them dead. The first one, gently freed by my grandfather, had cream-coloured short wool and was covered in a thin, bloody film, and it looked like it was asleep. I remember that face, scrunched up but perfect in its smallness. The second lamb had been dead for longer, it was half decayed already and came apart in my grandfather’s hands. The smell was horrible. I remember thinking that the least I could do to honour this creature’s suffering, was to endure the nauseating smell unflinchingly. I remember how black the blood looked, lumpy bits of bloody tissue and pale limbs wrapped in slime. And I remember feeling a great sadness for something that could never be, never become.
That must have been the first significant encounter with the gruesomeness of death in my life, although I had seen dead and dying animals before – pets that had died or been run over by cars, and slaughtered animals of course – and the concept of death, animal and human, had always been part of my world in stories, as far as I can think back. But this was different. I was filled with a kind of awe at the power of life and death and their cycles. I intuitively understood, perhaps at that very moment, that life will give and take, that resistance is a waste of energy, and that one way of finding contentment is to surrender to this power and willingly accept its gifts and bear its losses with a kind of earnest grace. I have been able to deal with loss in my life so far, experiencing a type of unhurried grief while knowing that it must be part of the human experience.
The stories I have been telling about the farm I grew up on, specifically in light of our upcoming exhibition there, are stories of springtime and wildflowers, of imaginative childhood games, running barefoot, more summer fruit than anyone could ever stomach, stories of grape harvests and eating watermelon and horse-riding and achingly beautiful landscapes. “What an idyllic childhood you must have had!” people say to me, sometimes with an accusing undertone in their voices.
But it isn’t the only truth. Sometimes I tend to display the brightest of memories like polished pebbles in a row. We are all sentimental beings. Perhaps it’s true that I am guilty of hiding dark moments in dark imaginary closets. I have been thinking about this lately, and I am most certainly guilty of selective storytelling, illuminating the positive aspects of a narrative to gather strength and positive energy. And perhaps I’m guilty of accidentally ignoring darker aspects in an attempt to stay optimistic and joyful. Maybe there are emotions I am not yet able to articulate, but I think I should try. It’s also true that I often don’t judge experiences as “good” or “bad” immediately; I simply try to live them, which isn’t an easy notion to convey in a world that constantly judges and pressures to be better and shinier every day.
I want to try and be more mindful of all kinds of events and viewpoints in my storytelling. Stories are nothing but fragments, chained together by time, often in archetypal patterns that move us precisely because they are timeless and universal. In my mind, there is no such thing as “the whole story” or “the only correct version” of a story, but I want to be more articulate, delve deeper and explore darker fragments and memories that may be painful to write and read about, alongside the bright stories that buoy us up.
My childhood wasn’t idyllic. It wasn’t bad either. It was my reality. It was rich and filled with creativity and inquisitiveness and meaning. I was fascinated with all kinds of bizarre experiences. There were nasty thorns on that farm, and our feet had to be de-thorned with a needle on an almost bi-weekly basis by my patient mother. That never stopped us from running around barefoot. That feeling of lightness and freedom outweighed the short stab of pain caused by a thorn. Besides, our feet grew callous and immune to thorns eventually.
Woven into that story of a childhood on a wine farm near Cape Town are complex stories of my heritage. Stories of wars and hiding in bomb shelters and life in WWII Germany that were never really talked about in our family. Stories of growing up in Soviet Hungary, yearning for personal freedom, stories littered with rejection and judgement and regret and pain and helplessness. Stories of experiencing reality on the easy side of Apartheid. And in between, chicken running across a yard strewn with purple Jacaranda blossoms, and us hunting guinea fowl as they flock home to their sleeping trees by the hundreds, pretending to be Indian warriors, and climbing trees to the very top. It’s really a thick, complicated narrative with thousands of threads, our grandparents’ fears suddenly bearing their teeth and ancient societal norms resurfacing from god knows where. I hope to delve into this narrative in a more articulate way as I get older and more capable of untangling and reframing these images with my personal lens. I hope to show the darkness and the callousness and the scars interlaced with new life and light and relentless love. And above all, I wish to show that each individual carries a meaningful web of stories inside, like a glowing gem.