The Snowman of Johannesburg
It's snowing in apartheid South Africa. It's snowing on a zebra and it's snowing on a snake. It's snowing on my father's spectacles and for a moment I can't see his eyes. I am five years old and have only seen snow in picture books. My father takes my hand and we walk down the steps of the red verandah and into the garden to take a closer look at our peach tree. It is covered in ice crystals. We are going to build a snowman even though we don't own gloves or warm scarves, but never mind, says Dad, let's get going, it doesn't snow every day in Africa.

First we make the body, scooping handfuls of miraculous Johannesburg snow and patting it into a fat dome. Last of all we make the snowman's head, tracing a wide smile with a stick that had fallen from the peach tree. What shall we do for eyes? I run into the house and come back with two ginger biscuits. We poke out the holes and press the round gingers into the snow head. When it gets dark we make our way back inside our rented bungalow in the suburb of Norwood, up the wax-polished steps that leads to the red doep that leads to a door that opens into the kitchen where a cotton sack of oranges leans against the peeling paint of the pantry wall.

Outside, the snowman stood under the African stars. Tomorrow we would make him even taller and fatter and find him a scarf.

That night while I lie in bed, the special branch of the security police knock on the door of our bungalow. They want my father and tell him to pack a suitcase. Two of the policemen are smoking cigarettes in the garden, watched by the snowman whose eyes are round and hollow The suitcase my father is packing is very small. Does that mean he will be back soon? The men have their big hands on his shoulders. Dad is trying to smile at me. A smile like the snowman's that turns up at the corners. And now he is being marched off at a pace by men who I know from conversations overheard between Mom and Dad torture other men and sometimes have swastikas tattooed on their wrists. A car is parked outside the house. The men are saying COM COM COM. The white car pulls away with my father inside it. I wave but he doesn't wave back.

When I walk into the garden in my pajamas I ask the snowman a question. I speak to him like people speak to God, I talk to him in my head and he answers me.

"What is going to happen?"

The snowman tells me: "Your father will be thrown into a dungeon and tortured and he will scream all night long and you will never see him again."

I can feel someone stroking my hair. Now the large brown hands of Maria cover my face, her palms pressing in to my cheeks. Maria is a tall Zuluwoman who has a secret stash of chewy oblong sweets called Pinkies wrapped in waxy paper hidden in her pocket. Maria is crying too and she is saying, "If you don't believe in apartheid you can go to prison. You have to be brave today and tomorrow and so do lots of children have to be brave because their fathers and mothers have been taken away too."

Maria lives with us and she is my nanny. She has a daughter my age called Thandiwe but Maria says Thandiwe's other name is Doreen so the whites can say her name. Maria's real name is Zama. I can say Zama but she says to call her Maria, which my mother says is a Spanish and ltalian name.

"What is Thandiwe doing now, Maria?"

Every time I ask Maria about her own daughter she makes a clicking noise with her tongue. I think the click means STOP, stop asking me about Thandiwe. When we get back to the kitchen, she tells me to rub Vaseline into her feet. Maria always keeps a pot of Vaseline in her pocket as well as the Pinkies. She takes it out now and I sit on the floor so she can put her right foot on my lap. The skin on the back of her heels is dry and cracked which is why I am instructed to "polish" her feet with the oily jelly until my fingers become hot. At the same time I watch my mother make phone calls to lawyers and friends while my one-year-old brother, Sam, sleeps on her shoulder. Then Mom makes a sign with her eyes to Maria, I know she doesn't want me to hear what she is saying.

"What is Thandiwe doing now, Maria?"

A week ago Thandiwe had come to the house and Maria put us both in the bath and scrubbed us with a brand new bar of Lux. We stared at each other and took turns to hold the soap. Maria even gave us both a Pinkie so it must have been a special day and then she put some Vaseline on both our lips because we were all "cracked up" from the sun. When Thandiwe had to leave the house she cried like a hose pipe that had been slashed. Tears spurted from her eyes onto the towel wrapped around her belly. She cried while her mother held her in her lap and dressed her in the brand new school shoes she had bought from her wages. Her little girl arms that smelt of Lux were wrapped around her mother's neck. Thandiwe was not supposed to be in our house because she was black. I had to promise not to tell anyone, no one at all. Sometimes I called Thandiwe Doreen, sometimes I didn't. Doreen was still crying when Mana left the bungalow to walk her to the "Blacks Only" bus stop where she would return to where she lived in the "township." Maria told her she had to be brave and that her Grandma was waiting to see her new shoes. Watching Thandiwe try to be brave was the worst thing that had happened in my life so far apart from Dad being taken away. I don't know what happened after I had rubbed Vaseline into Maria's feet, but later I was in bed and my mother was lying next to me. When our heads touched it was pain and it was also love.

In the morning the snowman had melted. It had disappeared just like Dad.

What is a snowman? He is a round paternal presence built by children to watch over the house. He is weighty, full of substance, but he is also insubstantial, flimsy, spectral. I knew from the moment we gave him ginger biscuits for eyes that he had become a snow ghost.

--- From Things I Don't Want to Know on Writing
Deborah Levy
©2013 Bloomsbury
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH