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Wednesday, Oct. 05, 2005 - 3:06 a.m.

The wives of the rock-lobster fishermen
have grown accustomed to waking alone,
their husbands having for centuries fished at dawn;
nor is their sleep as troubled as mine.
If you have gone, go then to the Portuguese rock-lobster fishermen.

from Youth, by JM Coetzee

This is the child's earliest memory: when he was tired of looking up, he turned to his side for the first time in his life, and saw that everything was different. He was almost one year old when this happened. From then on, the world looked different to him.

He was lying on top of a straw mat placed on his parent's bed, staring at the brown planks that made up the ceiling. Occasionally, his mother's face appeared, a fat, anonymous face, the face of a fisherman's wife. She peered over him momentarily, changed his diaper, and then her face disappeared. Then he went back to watching the ceiling. An olive-green lizard crawled the same path across the ceiling every afternoon, its furtive tongue searching for an invisible mosquito or sandfly. After the lizard passed, there would be more hours of staring at the planks, which creaked slightly whenever the sea-breeze blew over the hut. During this time, he fell asleep, and only woke to the smell of his mother's cooking. When she was done cooking, he could smell the sea. By then it was early evening and a triangle of darkness crept in over the planks from one corner of the ceiling. His father's smiling face appeared and then disappeared. The kerosene lamp was lit, and its yellow flame cast the flickering roomful of shadows onto the ceiling. For the rest of the night, the child watched the shifting play of dark shapes on the screen of the planks.

On that day, the child did not yet know that he had eyes, arms and legs, that things disappeared because he fell asleep, that the faces which appeared and vanished so suddenly were attached to bodies, or that the smell of his mother's cooking was the smell of grilled mackerel and sweet potatoes. The wooden planks of the ceiling were his world, where change was represented by the transient faces and the olive-green lizard, where light and shadow entered and played with each other like two curious dogs.

That night, the two curious dogs were still, and so the child grew tired of watching them. And as he turned his head to the right for the first time, the axis of his world turned with him.

The frame of vision stopped on the man sleeping next to him. The deep lines carved onto his face meandered around the skin of his cheeks. Purplish lips in the moonlight. Little white hairs, mixed with grey ones, growing out from his chin. The face was connected to a body, to arms and legs - a person! The child also realized that he was a fisherman's son. More than that: the son of a fisherman who caught not fish - but lobsters.

His father was asleep next to him, dreaming about the day's work. Who knows how experiences are transposed into dreams, and then from one snoring body to another? Perhaps physical contact is all that is needed. The child saw his father dreaming and caught it, as if he had a line with a special, silver hook.

In the dream, his father stands on the bow of the wooden fishing boat looking out to sea. The wind blows against the light brown skin of his chest and flaps his shorts like a flag. It is not yet time for the early sun and the sea with the land behind them are still black. It is a small boat, but it has an outboard motor that is controlled by his friend. His friend, shorter and plumper, lights a cigarette and taps the ash next to a jerry-can of diesel. The end of the cigarette is an orange point of light in the dark, a lighthouse of burning paper. Two hundred metres from the coast, they stop and toss the lobster cages over the side, each attached to the boat by a length of green, slimy rope. The two men sit in the boat talking, surrounded by the silence of the sea and the darkness of the expanse. The boat is motionless, anchored to the sea-floor by lobster cages that are waiting to be sprung.

He turned to the other side and saw that his mother was a person, and that before he arrived, she awoke alone. He was placed between their hearts.

He saw out the door of the wooden hut, across the beach - a solid landscape made up of individual sand grains shifting over one another when a foot was planted on it. There was the deep blue sky with its invisible lightless clouds, a small fishing boat with an outboard motor in the water. Lobster cages rested on the sea-floor and their ropes led up to the boat. Nearby, lobsters walked, some towards the lobster cages, others away from it. From all over the world they came and went, their tiny orange legs picking over rocks, sand, shellfish, over the imaginary lines of borders and Meridians. Their orange legs went up and down, like the fingers of a pianist. They journeyed across the limitless sea, only to find themselves caught in rusty wire cages, trapped in the antique nets of entangling hearts.


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