by Carla Durbach
Finding a place you can call home is the hardest. There is always a border, a fence, a wall, even if it is made of ideology. Fear doesn’t make for sturdy construction material, but there you have it. Turns out most people tend to become a tad distressed at inklings of imminent invasion.
On the SkyTrain, someone tells me I sound British while another suggests Australian. Someone else accuses me of being a New Zealander. Before long, I am paddling through a sea of tangled cultures. I am seaweed, and I am driftwood. If I am not careful to flow with the current, I may find myself crushed against jagged rocks or worse—adrift with myself for company. Like Pi. Always thought it was the tiger who had the most to fear. A flimsy boat on a raging sea is not a tiger’s natural habitat, and everybody knows that.
My English accent is under scrutiny. In North America it’s too European. Alternately, it skipped across continents from the land down under—a land I have yet to set foot in.
A woman in a pristine Ralph Lauren coat proudly tells me that her Romanian father never had an accent. I have never been to Romania, but I don’t believe her for a minute. Isn’t that where vampires are from, anyway? They always speak with an accent. She speaks with an accent, herself. Everyone does, even James Bond.
Unless they are mute.
When I try to tell her this, she turns away, pretends not to hear—ears vibrating to a different, lingering drum. That is what it must feel like to live in a small world, one the size of a pin needle. She would quite happily mute 007 while he is scaling walls and dodging automatic gun fire, a swooning Victoria’s Secret model under each arm. All for her own benefit. Ian Fleming would have something to say about this.
One day, out of curiosity or desperation (I don’t recall which one), I send for a DNA test. All it takes is the donation of a clinical sample, a condensed volume of saliva in a test tube, and Bob’s your uncle! Who knew that one day I would pay someone to scrutinize my spittle?
I wonder, momentarily, if there will be bits of last night’s supper in there.
Congratulations! You are part salami, part aging cheddar with a smidgeon of olive oil, and traces of Colgate. My husband jokes that all they will find in him is garlic. DNA strands, hydrogen bonded, interwoven with medicinal herb.
“You’d be Siberian, then. Garlic is native to the region,” I say.
He grimaces and shudders, detesting the allusion to sub-zero temperatures.
In the meantime, I sweat out the agony of the unknown.
Six weeks later, reality descends like the dense fog over the city where I work and now call home. I stare at the pie chart telling me of a notable slice of African descent, probably from slaves taken into Europe from West and North Africa during the conquests.
Images of chained, lashed, naked ancestry haunt my mind’s eye. Feverishly, I search in books, journals, the internet for threads of information. Anything that will ease my tight throat.
If they survived the violence of their capture, the slaves would have been unloaded from a ship on the quayside and promptly sold in the town square. Purchase was like the procurement of livestock, they say. Routine, a shopping day at market. So was the branding of skin with hot irons. Female slaves were frequently bought for sexual purposes. They mean rape. Upon death, bodies were disposed of, Holocaust-style, in a trough of whatever city. The civilized continued to turn a blind eye while ocean waters teemed with human trafficking.
There is a certain level of difficulty required to maintain reasonable eye-hand co-ordination when your hands are shaking.
The pie chart is not done with me yet.
Iberian, English, Scottish make up the bulk, and even Irish thrown in for good measure. My life in slivers. There are others, but I am too afraid to look.
Husband turns out to be one hundred percent Sephardic Jew. We stand, gazing at each other, united under connotations of historical heritage.
A Slave and a Jew. In holy matrimony.
The room is hot and stuffy, and I’m having trouble breathing.
“You are no longer enslaved,” he says, drawing me near, attempting to soothe. But he is wrong. We are all slaves to something. Even history. ‘Possession’ involves ten points of the Law, actually. This world should learn to do the math.
At least my husband hasn’t been sliced and diced.
I dab at my eyes with the kitchen towel, it being the nearest thing to grab.
“Aye, aren’t ya the lucky one,” I say, in mock Irish tongue. He laughs. He usually does, even when my jokes are not that funny. He kisses the top of my head, tells me I have the whole planet coursing through my veins.
My mother calls me, long distance, to find out if her only female offspring remains alive and well in a distant land.
“Well, I sort of knew about it. It’s on my side,” she says.
“Why on earth would you not tell me?”
“It never came up.”
It never came up. As if we are discussing her take on global politics.
Not being face to face, I can’t even look for signs of guilt or concealment or that slight nervous tic in her left eye when she is not being straight with me. Perhaps it’s superstition. She believes in angry ghosts.
I am not interested in a séance. I want origins. Someone suffered.
And I am not referring to the existential kind of suffering that plagues most of mankind. Someone was stolen, robbed, and stripped down to the bone. My blood stands as a witness, and I wish I could pick up a mountain, heave it onto my bare shoulders, and cast it into the depths of the sea. But I don’t even have a mustard seed in my hand. For a brief moment, I am consumed with inexplicable rage that swells in scorching and spitting flames and then dissipates just as quickly, simmering down and falling as cinders at my feet.
All my mother gives me are question marks on the other end of the line.
She says that as time passes, history becomes harder and harder to recollect. There are no letters, documents, or scars. The only remaining connection to that former life is society’s reluctance to remember, small template strands of blood, and my longing to know.
There is a woman preaching eloquently in the square outside the office building. My attention is drawn to her crystal blue eyes and freckled complexion, probably a progeny of the dear pilgrims. Pedestrians walk by, shaking their heads, sipping their caffeine, murmuring about mental illness. The woman doesn’t seem particularly disturbed by her own madness. On the contrary, there is a spring in her step as she paces back and forth in her worn moccasins and tall voice.
She says you don’t need a passport to enter the Kingdom of God. No monetary resources needed to pay for papers, no convincing anyone that you are worthy to walk on their dirt. This place is sounding more attractive by the minute—especially when you are a bit of everything and don’t belong anywhere. Let’s face it, there is no redemption for my condition, no way to integrate. I am both slave and slave owner.
“If you have a soul,” she says, “you qualify.”
In Europe they arrest them, the Bible peddlers. The police arrive, slap on handcuffs, tell them they are disturbing the peace, and whisk them off. Not this one. She can come, shout, and go as she pleases. She, of the storytelling ways, speaks of foundation, of houses built on sand, some on rock, and then a storm. I know enough about storms. Trees without roots tend to topple into the abyss, which is an occupational hazard if you suffer from vertigo. The city where I live and work is prone to earthquakes, maybe even tsunamis. I’d do well to lurk and listen.
But time is up, and I am compelled to drag my feet across the square back to the office. The manager always looks startled when I return from lunch. You would swear the entire business model is prone to impending collapse in the absence of my legendary photocopying skills.
Two co-workers corner me by the photocopier. Have I read Mars and Venus in the Bedroom yet? One of them is holding a tattered paperback in her hand like a magic wand.
Well, now that they ask…I want to tell them that men and women are not separated by constellations. They usually belong to the same Terran species and, furthermore, it would be no mean feat to successfully conduct a robust disagreement in outer space. Is it my impression or is the world stark raving mad? The very foundations of my little existence have been rattled and my identity is teetering at the edge of the precipice.
But I can’t get a word in edgewise. They soon abandon gender panic for the more compelling elements of individual disposition and self-discovery. Have I done this personality test, that personality test? They speak in riddles.
Sarah has recently discovered the enneagram, and it has revolutionized her life. She tells me this with steady, clear eyes. Apparently, you complete a questionnaire and are assigned a number corresponding to certain characteristics. They insist I should try it, but I am reluctant, having recently developed an allergy to branding. Surprising that in the age of information, no one knows who they are. Still.
By the way, what am I doing this weekend?
This is rapidly turning into a hostage situation.
I adopt a decently stern English accent, Queen Elizabeth-style, and attempt to extricate myself. Say, old chaps, have much work to do, copies to make, e-mails to send, slave trade history sites to Google. Implications to process, copious tears to shed. But they have no respect for the Queen and have never been to Buckingham palace, evidently. My stomach is lurching a little, rebelling against lunch. My palms are damp.
The side effects of sorrow.
Ingrid enlists me in a diatribe about the head of logistics who has accosted her, again, in the stairwell.
“Stay out of the stairwell,” we tell her in unison, knowing full well she won’t. Ingrid doesn’t cede territory; she’s Russian. Has no tolerance for harassment or KGB tactics.
“But there is no more KGB,” I tell her.
“Hmph…” She flicks a lock of blonde hair behind her back, extinguishes her cigarette on the corner of the copying machine. “Iz da Russian guvernment.”
“At least they leave you alone at work.”
Admittedly, I am not quite sure about this being true. Maybe they pursued her all the way to Vancouver. It is a hard sell anyhow, between having some guy pistol whip you or another snatching at your nether regions in the stairwell. I long to say, “Run, Ingrid, run.” But Ingrid is part Viking, too. They enjoy the clash of crucible steel, and it’s hard to run with all that armor.
“I brek zee knees,” she says, a dangerous glint in her eye. Now I feel sorry for the KGB. But not for the head of logistics.
“So, are you coming?” Sarah is asking me out for drinks on Sunday. Some pub down the road is having Happy Hour at lunch time.
“Bring the husband along.” She adds as an enticement, “I’ll bring mine. He has the flu so he’s regressed to, like, age five. I’ll buy him a glass of milk.”
They laugh out loud, not caring who hears.
“I’m going to church.” My lips move and the words come out. It is that simple.
“What?” they ask, horror stricken, laughter dissipating in a trail of smoke.
“Yeah,” I explain, “I’m thinking of emigrating.”
“So, then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”
Ephesians 2:19 ESV
About Carla Durbach
Durbach was raised and educated in South Africa. She worked as a therapist and assessor for close to twenty years. Carla resides in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and three Jedi cats who are plotting to take over the world.
Follow her on Instagram @carlaedpsych.