Judy Croome lives and writes in Johannesburg, South Africa. Shortlisted in the African Writing Flash Fiction 2011 competition, Judy’s short stories and poems have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, both local and international, such as The Huffington Post. Her books "The Weight of a Feather and other stories" (2013); “a Lamp at Midday” (2012) and “Dancing in the Shadows of Love” (2011) are currently available. Judy loves her family, cats, exploring the meaning of life, chocolate, cats, rainy days, ancient churches with their ancient graveyards, cats, meditation and solitude. Oh, and cats. Judy loves cats (who already appear to have discovered the meaning of life.) Visit Judy at www.judycroome.com or join her on Twitter @judy_croome
"It’ll protect you," her daddy said, "when I can’t."
"l'll treasure it forever, Daddy."
The earnest echo of her six-year-old self curves a smile on her face, smoothing the wrinkles guarding her narrow lips. Her heart warms at the memory of his booming voice. Forty years on – with him dead in his grave the past ten – she can make his vibrant voice manifest in an instant.
"I kept my promise, Daddy," she murmurs.
The taxi driver slews a puzzled glance over his shoulder. Pretending she’d said nothing, she looks out of the taxi, surprised at the flurry of snow beating densely against the window.
"Will we get there on time?"
"Sure," the driver confirms laconically. "As long as the storm stays away."
Relaxing, she leans back into the cracked leather seat. Snowstorms hold no fear for her, for they never touch her. The umbrella always keeps her safe.
Unknowingly her hand reaches out, seeking the strong steel handle. Colder than usual in the freezing weather, still it comforts her as she pulls it onto her lap, in much the same way her Daddy had done to her. Her palm cuddles the familiar shape.
Perfect. It's perfect. The best umbrella anyone could ever have.
"One of a kind, Princess, just like you," Daddy said, as he’d helped her open it for the first time.
She’d tossed her thick plait of black hair over her shoulder, her eyes glowing. Inside — where it counted — she was a Princess. With her beautiful umbrella in her hand, everyone at school would see it too.
But the children in the playground only sniggered at the contrast the umbrella made against her shabby clothes. "Look at Naledi," they laughed. "She’s barefoot again!"
She regally ignored them. Despite their amusement, she knew she was more special than they were.
With a flick of her wrist, the umbrella opened and she was safe. Safe from their coarseness. Safe from their vulgar minds, which saw her only as the daughter of a lowly toilet paper salesman and not the one-of-a-kind princess she was.
Eventually, though, she convinced them. The way she spoke; the lift of her chin when displeased. She made sure every action reflected the inner majesty she saw in the mirror each day.
Soon people began to treat her with the respect she deserved. The girls stopped giggling when she walked by. The boys still kept their distance. Her beauty and her intelligence—the aura of dignity she surrounded herself with — were too good for the simple government school she attended.
Her Daddy agreed.
"I’ll be chief salesman soon," he promised. "Then you’ll go to a proper school. One that teaches only the daughters of princes and presidents."
"Like me, Daddy?"
"Like you, Princess!"
She tensed with disappointment as her mother asked, "What about the washing machine you promised to buy me with the extra money?"
"That can wait," Daddy said. "Naledi’s future is more important."
When the girls at her new school, who were no different to the ignorant children from the townships, laughed at her badly pronounced words, she simply opened the umbrella. It hid them from view until her elocution lessons polished everything but rounded vowels and clipped consonants from her speech. Slowly they, too, come to recognise she was one of them.
She fitted right in, as she’d known she would.
Moreover, rich girls have brothers. Soon she met her prince.
"You’re extraordinarily gorgeous," he said. "One of a kind." Like Daddy, Mandla saw exactly who she was.
She married him.
The rounded vowels came more easily. Eventually she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t spoken with the biting edge of her new crystal voice.
She learnt, too, that with a trust fund behind her, it was easy to forget what being poor was like.
"High ideals are another privilege of the rich," her mother often said. "You’ve time to think, because you’re not worrying about where the next meal for your children will come from. Or," she looked at the dirty shirt in her chafed hands, "doing the washing and ironing."
"Nonsense." Sometimes her mother irritated her beyond belief. "You enjoy what you do,"
"Only because I have to." Her mother looked at her bleakly. "We’re still paying off your school fees."
Some truths one could only ignore. Silence reigned, until she asked, "What’s happening in the village?"
"Lungihoek Primary is having their reunion. Are you going?"
"They were your friends, once," her mother — or her conscience — said, "You’ll be sorry."
A twist of the umbrella blotted her out, and Naledi returned to her place at Mandla’s side.
Her life became better and better. She hardly needed the umbrella at all, until recently.
"We need to talk, Naledi. Really talk – from our hearts."
"Later, Mandla," she said, again and again.
When he insisted, she fancied his voice leaving jagged footprints in clean, crisp snow. She poked him gently, almost affectionately, with the tip of the umbrella. "Rather tell me about your day."
With a sigh, knowing he can’t fight the strength of the umbrella, he did. The flurries inside her subside again, leaving her calm and still, hunched under the safety of the umbrella’s arc.
Sometimes she thinks the snowstorms are coming closer and closer. Like the storm gathering ominously outside the taxi. A wave of unexpected heat engulfs her, making her clutch the umbrella tighter.
"Turn down the heater," she orders. "It’ll melt the snow and make me filthy."
The click is loud in the small interior. She shivers gratefully. The cool air surrounding her makes it easier to think about The Telephone Call.
"Is that Naledi?"
The woman sounded vaguely familiar. Perhaps one of Mandla’s secretaries, for she could never tell them apart.
"Yes," she’d said, dragging the word out with flawless diction. She doesn’t enjoy being on first name terms with employees.
"Mandla wants a divorce. He says he can’t talk to you."
The sudden hiss of an approaching snowstorm drowned out the woman’s words.
"You say Mandla wants to talk to me?" Why would Mandla get some strange woman to tell her that?
"Go to the Hilton tonight. Be there at eight." The ‘phone had clacked down in her ear and, replacing her handset, a slow smile had pulled up the habitual droop of her mouth. How romantic! She sighed dreamily. After all these years, my Prince is setting up a secret tryst.
The moan of the storm stopped as suddenly as it started.
Excited in a way she hadn’t been for years, she primped, preened, and powdered herself. Looking at the result in the mirror, she’d congratulated herself on how much she’d achieved in her life.
A happy home, in the best suburb in the north. Two children, educated at the best schools, grown now, and happily climbing the ranks in their father’s business. Exciting events to fill her days with activities once out of reach for people like her: tennis on Mondays, movies with friends on Tuesdays, Wednesdays she works for Mandla from the computer in their home study. And so her weeks, and her life, went on.
At times, when the winter blues brought the snowstorms ever closer, raising goose bumps of unknown fears on her skin, she’d wondered if her life was too happy. Can life be too happy? But, safe under the haven of her umbrella, she’d stopped worrying and the whiteout always faded away.
This one, she notes, with another glance at the driving snow, is taking a while to pass by. The taxi driver, his untrimmed moustache reminding her of a dense, unexplored forest, is as unconcerned as ever.
"I’ll get you there, lady," he promises. What has he seen in her expression? "Look," he adds, pointing with two fingers, a stubby, ash-tipped cigarette between them. "There’s your hotel."
He’s pleasant, she decides, despite the shabby appearance. Perhaps he only needs some of her guidance. "Smoking’s unhealthy for you. You should give it up."
She can’t be sure, but she thinks he looks annoyed.
"We all have our weaknesses, lady." He pauses, briefly capturing her eyes in the mirror. "At least mine bring me pleasure."
Is that a warning? She frowns, and then starts as a gust of snow hammers the small taxi, dragging her thoughts away from his odd reply.
"You should try to overcome your weaknesses," she urges.
"Eish! You’re one of a kind, lady, you know?"
She smiles imperially at him, pleased, and surprised, he has the intelligence to recognise what she is. Not approving the habit of giving gratuities to people who, when serving her, are only doing their jobs, she decides to add a small tip to his fare.
"We’re here," he says, opening the door for her. Sometime during their conversation, they must have passed through the last of the storm, for there is nothing but clear, crisp snow lying all around.
With all the grace her long-ago dancing lessons instilled in her, she climbs out, nodding her thanks.
Casually tapping his forehead with two fingers, he says, "Good luck," and laughs as he disappears, his final words drifting back at her. "You’ll need it."
What an odd man, she decides, dismissing him from her mind as she searches the foyer for Mandla.
She sees him, coming out of the bar.
"Mandla," she calls, "I’m here."
He swings his face toward her. Instead of the smile she expects to see – the familiar, slow smile he’d given her when they were first in love – his face clenches with an indescribable agony.
"Mandla!" She rushes to his side, thinking heart attack! Her own heart thumps loudly in her chest.
"What are you doing here, Naledi?"
The relief that he is well barely allows for curiosity.
"You invited me to dinner," she replies.
He shakes his head, the streaks of grey softening the black curls cupping his head more attractively than ever. "It wasn’t me," he denies, turning his head away from her.
Only then does she see the young woman standing next to him, her hand, smooth and unwrinkled, lying possessively on his arm.
"I invited her," the young woman says. A pleading note enters her voice as she looks up at Mandla. "It’s time she knew about us."
"Naledi, are you all right?"
Of course, I'm all right, she wants to say. I'll be fine, just fine: as soon as I open my umbrella. Then she can apologize for interrupting his business dinner. She’ll return home, grabbing a quick bite of leftovers from the fridge. She’ll wait for him to come and, as usual, tell her about his day.
"I ... I ... " Her hands struggle with the umbrella. "J-just let me ... "Her voice breaks on a sob as the umbrella refuses to open. "What am I going to do," she cries, "without my umbrella?"
"Naledi ... "Guilty exasperation laces his deep voice. "There is no umbrella."
She ignores him, jerking and tugging the worn catch. For the first time ever, the umbrella refuses to open.
"Mad old cow," she hears the young woman say, her voice faint in the soft sibilance of this relentless storm. "No wonder you want to divorce her."
Mandla’s reply is lost ... lost as her umbrella as she falls, deep into the banks of melting snow, drowning, drowning, in her old nightmare.
She isn’t, after all, one of kind. Like so many other souls on this earth, she is simply an ordinary woman.
An ordinary woman: alone and unloved, without even an umbrella to keep her safe.
Petitions and protests and t-shirts galore.
While you - King of the Beasts no more -
Slip into history and slowly depart.
Does your golden beauty set you apart?
Will your raw power be remembered before
No-one can track your massive spoor anymore?
Would it help if I impart
Some shocking statistics?
Human global population: 1940 (2.3 billion) 2011 (7 billion)
Lion global population: 1940 (450 000) 2011 (20 000, we think.)
We really are quite arrogant, (some would say stupid), aren't we?
We choose what animals to save
While we breed and breed, and breed some more.
If humans were a herd of elephants grown too big, we'd be culled.
Perhaps then, the lion would not become a dodo.
US Census Bureau
Set in Libya in 1979, In the Country of Men tells of nine-year-old Suleiman's complex childhood: games in the street with his friends intertwine with a deeply ambivalent relationship with his mother. Married at 14, a mother at 15, Najwa seeks a remedy for her "illness" inside a bottle of illegal "medicine". When she is "ill," she pours bitterness and love into her young son's receptive ears in equal measure.
The constant anxiety about his mother and the lurking fear that if he doesn't save her something terrible will happen reflect the effect of the greater political landscape overshadowing Suleiman's childhood. Inexorably led into a dark political world of oppression and violence he cannot yet fully understand his mother's fragile emotional state. Also, his father's political dissidence extracts an inevitable toll on Suleiman's psyche. They mark him for life: "I can feel the distant reverberations from that day, my inauguration into the dark art of submission," says the grown-up Suleiman, many years later from his distant new life in Egypt.
Throughout the story, Matar explores several universal themes in a variety of ways. Loyalty and betrayal, the concepts of manhood and heroism, truth and deception, love and alienation, oppression and freedom, and individual rights versus national pride are all threads woven into the exquisitely lyrical narrative.
The vivid imagery of life in Libya and the graceful, poetic style of the prose make In the Country of Men a quick, easy read, even though Suleiman's narrative is dark with his lost (or sacrificed) innocence. The boy's flawed understanding of what's happening around him exacerbates the Oedipal nature of his relationship with his parents. He is, after all, only a child. But he is a child damaged by both the oppressive society in which he lives and the way in which this has affected his parents.
He can't make the complete connection between the oppression of his mother's rights as an individual and the political oppression his father resists. Deprived of her education, identity and freedom, Najwa was forced into a marriage at 14 by the male elders of her family because she met a young male school friend for coffee. Although she had no real choice, over the years Najwa learned to love her husband Faraj, but that love is convoluted and tainted with a repressed bitterness for the freedom she lost to gain the protection of her husband. In the same way, the people of Libya are forced to embrace a national pride and love for their Guide and Leader, Muammar Qaddafi. Having deprived his wife of her individual freedoms, Faraj determinedly fights the loss of his own freedoms under the Qaddafi regime.
The intersecting political and personal worlds, with their distorted concepts of manhood and power, rupture Suleiman's identity into a strange mix of innocence and guile, compassion and cruelty. In his later analysis of his actions, the older Suleiman says, "In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child craving concern. And although I didn't think of it then in these terms, my self-pity had soured into self-loathing."
Suleiman's self-loathing made him an unappealing character and he lost my sympathies early in the story. As a woman who has known only freedom, I couldn't relate deeply enough to the forces that so harshly influenced Suleiman's development from boy to man. Sadly, I didn't enjoy the novel as much as the beautiful, evocative writing deserved.
In the Country of Men is, however, a well-written, interesting novel and one that provides a disturbing picture of the old Libya. Reading the harsh realities of life under the tyrant Qaddafi, I'm no longer surprised that the Arab Spring resulted in the gruesome and violent death of a leader who betrayed his people for power.
To hear Hiram Matar discuss In the Country of Men, listen to this BBC podcast.
Title: IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN
Author: Hisham Matar
Date of Edition Publication: March 1, 2007
Is where the world ends.
I stand alone, in my red coat and yellow boots,
Faded and shabby with use.
I clasp a thick, gnarled staff,
Made of oak or elm, I know not and care less.
The sea breeze brushes my cheeks with damp fingers,
Smoothing away the silver tracks of loneliness,
Even as the orange-and-green striped sail
Of a passing catamaran
Billows with the fierce joy of movement
Age and illness have so long denied me.
Dancing over the playful white caps,
The cat bears away,
Into the distant horizon that beckons.
I lean forward, far over the cliff edge,
Watching until it falls into nothingness.
I throw away my staff and wonder:
Will I ever be as free again?
And there, where the blue sea meets the indigo sky,
I stare into infinity and watch the world end.
He'd stepped off the Flossie that morning looking unbelievably young, and yet there was only a single year between us. Friends since we were laaities, I became his hero on the day we started junior school.
His glasses, and his small fragile build, gave him the look of a girl. The other boys, especially the jocks, thought they'd found the perfect victim and flicked his forearm with their wet towels until he had a lammie the size of a golf ball. But because I was so much bigger and tougher than him, Ma had made me promise to look after him so Pete's Ma-her best friend-wouldn't worry.
So I did and those doff jocks never bothered him again.
He became my shadow after that.
Even now, deep in the Angolan bush, and crouched low in this godforsaken TB about forty clicks north of the border at Rundu, he's at my side.
The Flossie that brought him hadn't even cooled down before the Colonel was asking for volunteers. I'd lost four troops on my last search-and-destroy, and I had to go back over the border. Pete's hand shot up and I groaned because, as I'd discovered over the years, that slight body contained a will of steel.
'You're a rookie, Pete,' I pleaded later, as I tore open the ratpacks and stuffed the useful items into my chest webbing. 'You haven't even been blooded.'
He took a long draw on a Marlboro. I'd smoked them since I was thirteen, but this was the first time I'd seen him draw on one. Flicking the stompie into the gritty sand that had a way of creeping into everything in the camp, he dropped his foot from the wheel of the Ratel and straightened. 'Nigel,' he said. 'You were a rookie once...now you're a hero.'
'I'm no hero,' I muttered. 'I'm just an old soldier. While you were being a bookworm at that fancy varsity of yours, I was learning to eat mopani worms to keep alive.'
Ignoring his chuckle, I grabbed his arm. 'I'll square it with the Colonel. Just stay behind on this trip.'
'Nope,' he grinned. 'I'm coming.' The steel was still there and I knew I wouldn't change his mind.
How could I tell him of the shiver that racked me, even in this intense heat? I said nothing when he shook me off. Pete was no coward and I could not turn him into one.
And so here we were. Together again, in the dark. But this time the silence wasn't broken by soft moans as I kissed my first girl-Pete's sister-in the back seat of my Dad's car, while Pete kept watch to make sure none of the parents came out to see what we were doing.
This time the silence was broken by an eerie chanting, like the spirits of the dead yet to be, from the nearby village that was our morning target.
I zigzagged low over the chana. With a quick hand signal, I ordered the attack on the kraal. As swift as a swarm of ants, we breeched the walls. The Recces had done their job. The village was awash with the enemy. A boy, his black head shaved, hunched over a fire, casually stirring breakfast. When he saw us, he half-stood. His familiar grey uniform with its distinctive red-and-brown rice flecks flapped as he tried to warn his comrades.
Without thought, I revved him. The RAT-A-TAT-TAT blew him backwards. The potjie he was stirring crashed over, the fire hissing and spitting. A fat old pig rooting near the door of his hut snuffled in the half-cooked mess. Shouts and screams came from both the terrified villagers and the enemy soldiers. They flung themselves to the ground, caught between the gunfire and the grenades. I couldn't tell which was enemy fire and which was ours: it was all the same.
They had no hope of survival, though. We were too thorough. Soon the shots faded and the smell of death and fear hung heavy over the kraal as I took roll call.
'van der Poel?'
Silence. Then another voice shouted, 'He's wounded, Kaptein, but alive.'
I breathed again after each name was accounted for.
'Pete?' I called at last, and waited, filled with a new kind of fear. 'Pete!'
'He's over there, Kaptein,' the loot said.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw Pete. His face, white against the smudges of smoke and black-is-beautiful camo cream, was frozen. He stared at the young terr I'd shot first. My bullets had torn his arm to pieces, an easy meal for the pig, tugging and snorting, so that the boy's arm jumped and jerked, almost alive...and then something in the lay of the body, a twitch in a cheek that should have been dead, warned me.
'Pete!' I shouted. My boots gripped the sand hard as I forced myself to run.
I was too late.
The body rolled over and up. Before I could say 'He's alive!', the boy grabbed his fallen AK47 and yelled, 'A luta continua!' Then he blasted a stream of bullets that had Pete dancing with macabre grace.
They say I screamed and swore and reloaded twice before they brought me down and stopped me shooting at that murderous kaffir.
All I remember is looking up from the ground, tasting dirt and the salt of sweat or tears. I watched as that fat old pig trotted eagerly over to where Pete's body lay and began to feast on his brains, seeping slowly from his shattered skull, staining the dirt of that foreign land where his bones still rest today.
'What do you want?' He speaks rustily, a high-pitched squeak scrubbing the hairs of my neck into attention.
'A drink.' I take a step closer, exhaustion pushing me to ignore the creeping darkness. 'Some food, if you can spare it.'
'A place to rest.'
Patiently I answer his questions. A stranger intruding in his domain, I need him. 'There's nowhere else for me to go.' I gesture towards the thin sliver of moon, still low in the night sky. 'There's not enough light to go on.'
'But you don't want to go on, do you?'
An inescapable truth lies embedded in his words. I shake my head. 'There's no future for me here.'
A foot scrapes along a rock as he bends to pick up a stick. Poking the fire into a greater blaze, he says, 'Sit.'
So I sit, stumbling over my weary feet in unseemly haste, my stomach grumbling loudly in protest. I'd begun my journey ill prepared; now I'm paying for my foolishness.
He holds out an old tin cup. I gratefully press my palms around the fading image of Spiderman. It reminds me of Marty.
I try not to think of Marty, but it's easier to stop breathing than to stop remembering the last time I saw him.
'You've been thinking of killing yourself. That's why you came here.'
Coffee, hot and acrid, slops over my hands. 'Suicide is for cowards,' I whisper in denial.
'Or desperate souls.'
Desperate? Am I desperate? A hollow cavern, musty, rotten and black as the Devil's eyes, exists where other people have hearts.
Perhaps I am desperate, and it shows on my face. I haven't looked in a mirror for days, so I've noticed no changes.
'Is there nothing to live for?'
An eternity of love mellows the intrusive question. I lift my gaze from the flames and, until my eyes adjust, I think my companion is merely an illusion, another part of my madness.
I answer him anyway. 'Nothing. No one.' Hopelessness thrums through my answer and, so there can be no misunderstanding, I add, 'I'm alone in a world gone mad.'
'We're alone all our lives.' He chuckles, deepening the crevices lining his face with years of living. 'And this world has always been mad.'
I look around. Despite the dimness of dusk, there is peace and beauty here. This is not the black void of petty sins, nor is it the chaos consuming my soul since Marty left me.
'There's no madness here.'
A malignant flicker escapes from his eyes, eating deep into my secret fears. 'You're wrong.'
I jerk upwards, needing only the tiniest excuse to flee once again. He knows what he's done and smiles, revealing a row of yellowed teeth. 'You're in no danger from me,' he soothes, and the warmth returns to his words, seeping into my loneliness.
Can I trust him?
I have no choice, and no energy, to do otherwise.
'Where,' I clear my throat, the dryness of fear clicking away the last taste of coffee, 'is the madness here?'
He's silent, staring into the smouldering embers for a long while. The faint swish as he twirls the coffee dregs in his mug - another dented superhero stares at me through his grubby fingers - is all that breaks the intense silence of the night. Just when I think he won't answer me, he says, 'Close,' and a shudder racks his slight frame, stirring the mangy fur slung around his shoulders. 'Too close.'
A jackal yip-yips in the distance and, in unison, we shift nearer the fire. His bony knee knocks against my denim-clad leg, and then he whispers invitingly, 'Tell me of your madness.'
Does he ask because he wants to distract himself from his own insanity? Or does he want to know what brought me into his solitude? '
There's no reason to go on.'
'Reason has so little to do with life.' He takes my hand in a surprisingly feminine gesture of comfort, cupping it between his palms and gently rubbing it. 'It's in the heart that people find the strength to go on.'
'I have no heart any more.' I don't even try to hide the bitterness. Or the anger. 'I lost it a year ago.'
'When Marty left.'
The pain is numbing; I don't question how he knows.
'Will you tell me what happened?'
I shake my head. I've told no one. For, if I open my jaws, still locked in agony - if I let one word spill out of me, the pus of despair will choke me.
'Tell me.' There's an order in the sudden deepening of the stranger's voice. Still I resist. I've held it in for so many months I don't know how to speak of the emptiness that fills me.
'Tell me... please.'
I loosen my tongue from the sticky flytrap that is my palate to say no. Somehow what I say is not what I intend.
'It happened in the middle of the day,' I begin, 'a beautiful spring day, full of hope and happiness...'
'Marty,' I call, 'hurry up! You'll be late again.' I hear the careless clatter as he runs down the stairs, followed by the familiar thud of the heavy bag landing in the corner.
'I'm here, Ma,' and the whirlwind that is my son slumps into momentary quiet as he slurps his juice, Spiderman's vapid face rapidly fading from orange to crystal clear as the tumbler empties. 'Yum!' Marty says, 'Chocbitz!' and begins to demolish his cereal. Already, he's loosened his tie and his hair, neatly combed before he left the bathroom, is spiked and on end.
The familiar tightness expands my chest. I don't often allow myself regrets, but today I can't help thinking if only his father could see him now. Sighing, I turn back to the dishes piled high in the sink, knowing it's too late for regrets. Jonathon is gone, long gone, the car crash that killed him almost forgotten. Only I am left to cherish the milestones marking our son's journey to maturity.
Too soon, it's time to leave for work. Dull as it is, it's secure and pays the bills that keep my Marty safe. I drop him off at school on the way.
There's nothing extraordinary about the start of this particular day - the morning passes with the usual office ho-hum. I clear two tapes of dictation quickly and even some long-outstanding filing. Soon the moment I wait for every day arrives. I must fetch Marty from school.
I'm slightly late today. A traffic snarl delays me, so I park across the road, half a block away from the school gates. Marty emerges from the pack of noisy children in a rush, his satchel on his back, his hands clutching a large poster.
Even from this distance, I pick up his eagerness, and I smile lovingly. He had his art class today. From experience, I know the poster is a gift for me. Perhaps another heart, roughly drawn and asymmetrical, but full of so much love the mother in me will somehow find an empty spot in our tiny apartment to pin it up.
He looks toward the spot where I normally park and frowns when I'm not there. Since Jonathon died, he hates it when I'm late.
'Marty,' I call, standing on tiptoe to wave at him. 'I'm over here, Marty.'
'Ma!' He shouts delightedly, holding his drawing aloft, 'Look what I've got for you!'
With his characteristic excess of energy, he charges towards me, all his focus on reaching me. Neither of us sees the car until it's too late.
Far, far too late to do anything except watch, in silent, stunned horror, as my son's small body flies up, over the festive red roof, to land crumpled and still at the side of the road.
Blood dribbles slowly towards the words he has written across his paper offering. I love Mom, I read.
Calmly, I scoop it up, folding it in two, before slipping it into my purse. Only then do I kneel next to my son. 'I love you too, Marty,' I say. I barely hear the screams around me, fading into the sounds of an approaching siren. Nor do I feel the hands gently unclenching my grip from Marty's still warm fingers...
In the distance, I hear someone sobbing, and I know it's me. I haven't cried once since Marty died, and my throat struggles to cope with the deluge pouring from my heart. The stranger lets me cry until I'm empty of all tears; limp and drained dry amidst the rubble of my life.
'It's not fair!' I don't bother to hide the acid quagmire consuming me. 'First Jonathon, then Marty. Why take both of them? Why leave me alone?'
'The madness doesn't discriminate.'
'I want to see Marty.' The sobs rise in my chest once more but, ruthlessly, I crush them. Crying has made no difference. I am still alone. 'I need to see my son again, before I go crazy.'
'Will only the silence of death make the madness leave you?'
My muscles are locked with the tension of keeping myself from breaking up, but I manage a tremor of assent. He smiles mysteriously. 'Look at the fire.'
My gaze shifts to the glowing amber coals and the air gets heavier, sweeter. I sway towards the dying fire, close, too close, so some part of me smells the singe of burning hair. I've been cold for so long, I relish the sudden heat on my cheeks.
A breeze springs up, rustling through the leaves and stoking the somnolent coals into new life. A life which flickers and flares into an all too familiar sight. Hardly believing what I see, I stumble to my knees, crying, 'Marty!'
And, before he leaves as quickly as he left me a year ago, I reach out to touch him, to hold my beloved son just once more. I want to tell him all I never had the chance to say before: my hopes for his future; my dreams for his life. To say I know the child he'd been would grow into a man, a good and decent man, loving and loved.
Oh-so-loved for, without him, my life is hollow, as thin and faded as the waning crescent moon hanging forlornly above us. The crackling coals merge until I see a face, a child's face, with Marty's eyes and Marty's mouth.
'I love you, Mom,' he says. 'We'll meet again, but not yet... not yet...' and his precious image melts back into mere flames.
I thrust forward, wanting to embrace him close to my heart, so it can beat anew, instead of lying there cracked, my life's blood trickling out with every memory. The pain jolts up my arms, searing a path directly into my chest, but I hardly notice it. 'Don't leave me, Marty,' I scream, 'Oh God, please don't leave me alone!'
I jump up, kicking the coals apart, searching for him, desperate for him to stay.
But my son leaves me, as he did before.
This time I'm left clutching nothing but a smouldering stick. I chant my grief in a crescendo of pain as the blisters on my palms sear their way into the cavern of my chest, incinerating my broken heart into a pile of lifeless charcoal. 'Marty,' I cry, 'Marty! Marty! Mar-'
'Hush, child, hush.' The stranger's touch on my cheek is gentle and calming. 'Be quiet and listen.'
Slowly I contain my grief. In the stillness, I hear the distant beat of a drum, faint and faltering, an erratic rhythm slowly surrendering into the peace of acceptance. It is my heart, I realize, the wound I'd feared mortal now cauterised as my life begins to creep back into being.
Dazed with emotions I'd thought diminished forever in the moment I last held Marty's hand, I look around me, hardly taking in the shadows cast by the faint moonshine.
'I'm not dying any more.' Even I hear how surprised I sound.
'An end is not loss.' As he speaks, the stranger nudges more logs on the fire. 'It's simply... an end.' He stands up, dusting charcoal from his palms. 'Or a beginning. Give me your hands.' Obedient to his authority, I place my hands in his and, no longer feeling the aching blisters, my attention is held as he speaks.
'The balsamic moon gathers wisdom into the soul.' I must strain forward to hear his whisper. 'Look up,' he continues, 'and see your future.'
Ten minutes ago I would have seen nothing but the remnants of a soul shorn of hope, too weary to go forward. When I look at it now, somehow the thin crescent is no longer sad and waning, but holds a glimmer of new life.
In a gasp of gratitude, I seek out the stranger, but he's no longer with me. I am alone again, only the blood pulsing fiercely in my veins keeping me company.
For a moment, the old fears rise to devour me. Then the victory screech of an owl almost drowns out the last, fated squeal of its prey. The owl will live, gaining strength from the gift it encountered in the inconspicuous moonlight.
And, so too, will I.
Calm again, I put my fears aside as, easing the last tension from my spine, I stretch and yawn widely. Tomorrow I will visit Marty's grave. Then I will return to my life, desolate no longer, but abundant with memories.
For tonight, though, I will sleep peacefully, perhaps dreaming of Marty again. Perhaps not, for I no longer yearn to see him. He is with me whenever, and wherever, I want - in the battered Spiderman cup lying discarded at my feet and in the shadows cast as the moon moves inexorably onwards into a new day, a new cycle. It is over, and it is here, beneath a balsamic moon, that I am born again.