Exclusive: Read Alex Latimer’s ‘A Fierce Symmetry’, which won 2nd place in the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Competition
Books LIVE is in the process of exclusively sharing the winning stories from the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.
First up last week was Mark Winkler’s story “Ink”.
This week we are sharing Alex Latimer’s second-placed story, “A Fierce Symmetry”.
Both of SSDA’s previous anthologies have received widespread acclaim; two stories from Feast, Famine & Potluck were shortlisted for The Caine Prize for African Writing – with one, “My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Oduor, going on to win the prize – while Terra Incognita was given an excellent review from the LA Review of Books.
This year’s judging panel, Mary Watson, Billy Kahora and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, said Latimer’s story “wonderfully observes the theme of the competition, has an admirably sparse style, interesting content and a strong voice”.
In a chat with SSDA recently, Latimer explained the background to the story:
Tiah Beautement: Your story, “A Fierce Symmetry”, centres around boiling down dead tiger in an attempt to preserve the bones. I’ve read it seven times and, with each reading, another detail opens up. How did this poignant story come to be?
Latimer: My mother died when I was eleven and since then I’ve been trying to find a way of writing about it. So it’s only taken me twenty-something years to put these three thousand words down. For me ‘A Fierce Symmetry’ is about the gradual second loss of my mom as my life moved on and I began to forget details about her. That’s such a difficult part of grieving – and it never ends. And the tiger-boiling had these weird and often visceral parallels of process that fitted perfectly.
I ended up writing the first two thousand words of this story over two days about a year ago. Somehow it all fell into place in my mind. The next thousand words came in bits and pieces over a few months – but there was no pressure since I wasn’t sure I even wanted to publish this story. I just wanted it to be as good as I could make it.
Latimer’s debut novel The Space Race was published by Umuzi in 2013. His next novel, South, co-written with Diane Awerbuck, will be published by Corvus in September 2016. Alex is best known for his picture books, which have been translated into a variety of languages and sold globally.
Read the story:
Two bodies arrived at our house a year apart. The first was my mother’s,
in an ambulance, for us to see. My aunt came into my room. I had my head resting against the wall and my eyes closed. She sat on my bed.
“Do you want to see her?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Are you sure? I’ll come outside with you and we can just see her and say goodbye.”
“I don’t want to.”
The ambulance left a few minutes later. I heard it roll back out of our driveway and into the street, then turn down the hill past the Joan Harrison Swimming Pool.
A week later I was standing on a chair, looking for a practice golf ball in the pocket of a golf bag on top of Dad’s built-in cupboards. I was excused from school for the week and bored with daytime television. Behind the suitcases was a tin that I didn’t recognise.
Inside was a paper bag that held coarse, dry sand. I unrolled the top and felt it with my finger. I sniffed it too. I took a second to realise it was my mother’s ashes and I put the lid back quickly, as though I’d let her ghost out.
We sprinkled those ashes in the sea the next day. We drove out before sunrise in our grey-blue kombi to Igoda Beach, with flowers, the tin and some matches. We didn’t talk in the car. We ate shop-bought muffins and stared at the sun rising in the side mirrors. Igoda Beach is endless. The sea is always rough and dark there, and the dunes are steep and tall and edged with thicket. We walked down to the sand in single file and crossed the shallow river mouth. Dad led us along the shore until the car was a speck in the morning haze.
“Here,” he said.
The four of us rolled our trousers up to our knees and waded into the surf and we each threw some of that sand into the water. Then we tossed roses like javelins into the foam.
“The sea is connected everywhere,” Dad said. “It doesn’t matter where you go, she’ll always be with you.”
He asked if we had anything we wanted to say, but it was too hard to speak and we stood quietly, our feet numb from the cold, our rolled-up trouser hems damp with frothy swell. We retreated up the side of a sand dune, with the whole ocean laid out in front of us, and made a pyre of the newspaper we’d carried the flowers in, and the empty paper bag. They burned reluctantly and the wind whipped the ashes away while we sipped on juice from boxes and watched as a fisherman passed by far below. He stopped to look at the washed-up roses.
Twelve months later the second body arrived.
I was lying on the same bed, trying to reach a letter that had slipped down into the dusty space beneath it, when my middle brother ran into my room.
“Do you want to see?”
I followed him; my eldest brother trailed after.
When we came out of the kitchen door, the garden gate was open and we could hear a bakkie idling in the driveway. Dad was clearing pot plants off the cement table.
“Make space,” he said, shooing us.
Four men came through the gate, carrying the body wrapped in a couple of hessian sacks. We knew what it was – Dad had told us it was coming – but the arm that protruded from it seemed too human and we were unsure for a moment. It was a fingerless hand, pink and cupped and clawing.
“Where do you want it?” one of the men asked, and Dad showed them across the courtyard to the table. They laid it down and I could see for the first time how long it was and I caught its smell. Fatty and meaty.
Dad would not peel back the hessian to let us see the whole creature: it would only attract flies. Instead he sent us to fetch things from the garden: the zinc tub from below the washing line, the one we used to wash the dog in; bricks from the pile below the cherry guava tree, sixteen of them; firewood, wherever we could find it. We carried armfuls of jacaranda twigs and old pine off-cuts from beside Dad’s workbench.
Then we watched him stack the bricks into little columns, two high and two deep, and arrange and re-arrange them to counter the uneven paving. He rested the zinc tub on the pillars and tested his construction for stability, pushing down hard on the rim with his palms so that his feet lifted off the ground.
“Can we see it yet?”
Dad didn’t answer.
“Where’s the dog?” he asked, lying on his side on the paving, holding a match against the crumpled newspaper. “Is the gate closed?”
“Just check if she got out.”
We began our search in the living room, calling for our Irish terrier, and looking under tables and beds. I found her at the bottom of the garden cowering under the leaves of a delicious monster. I took her by the collar and checked her muzzle. She’d hidden away like this once before and Dad had found her foaming at the mouth – a dead raucous toad beside her. She vomited a lot that night, but she survived.
“I found her,” I said when I got back to the courtyard. “She’s fine.” The hose was hanging over the lip of the tub, gurgling, and Dad had the kitchen scissors in his hand.
“You all ready?” he asked.
He cut away the hessian and, snip by snip, revealed the carcass of a female Bengal tiger.
She looked uncomfortable. Her front left leg stuck out sideways, while the others were tucked in towards her body. Her tail was curled down between her legs and she was stiff – locked into place, the same nervous position she’d been in when she’d collapsed from the tranquilliser.
“Died during a routine check-up. Anaesthetic was too strong,” Dad said.
I used to visit the zoo a lot, so I’d seen this tiger when she was alive. But I saw now that half of her was fur and fat and charisma – and the people at the zoo had already trimmed all of that away. Here she was without her skull or her teeth or her claws or her flesh. She was a headless Sunday chicken carved down to the bone, good only for broth.
“You two, take that side. Us two will take the front.”
We lifted the tiger up off the table, crab-walked to the tub and lowered her into the rising water.
We spent the afternoon feeding the fire until bubbles like Fanta appeared on the bottom of the tub. They multiplied and the water boiled and we watched her turning to soup. Her bones changed colour in the heat: first pink, then yellow and beige. The heat liquefied the fat that had rested between the tendons and bones, and it rose to the surface as a layer of waxy foam. It smelled like bad lamb pies. The hot water relaxed her completely and at last she lost her cowering pose and took the shape of the cauldron. Her protruding paw sank slowly into the froth.
The neighbours came to look over the wall, and they were polite and understanding, as people are when they are dealing with the mild insanity of the bereaved.
“I hope you don’t mind the smell,” Dad said.
“Oh, no. It’s not so bad. What’s in the pot?”
“A tiger. The one from the zoo died.”
“I’m going to re-build her. Wire the bones together.”
“And where’s the head?”
“The zoo kept it, and the skin too. For a rug, they said.”
“Oh, okay. Well, we’ll keep popping our heads over to see the progress.”
They never did.
We left her to boil for days. The last thing Dad would do before bed was lay a few thick logs on the fire to sustain it during the night. And in the morning, we’d rekindle the ashes and get it blazing before we left for school, our hair smelling of smoke, our clothes saturated with the smell of animal.
In class for “How Was Your Weekend?”, I stood up and told everyone about our tiger. After I sat down the boy after me made up a story about how his cocker spaniel had hijacked their ride-on mower and driven it into the swimming pool. The tiger was better as a secret anyway.
The next Saturday over breakfast Dad told us to let the fire die. He hadn’t stoked it the evening before and the ashes were cold. The tub was lukewarm when we touched it.
The bones had loosened and disconnected and sunk to the bottom. Dad found a coat hanger in the shed and he bent it into a long hook and fished around in the stew with it. He hooked her pelvis, which despite the days of boiling still had sinews attached. He lifted it out of the soup and put it in the outside basin. It steamed in little puffs.
“We’ll have to do another boil,” he said, “but first we need to cut as much of this stuff away as we can.” He pointed to the ragged meat. Quite suddenly, my brothers lost interest in the tiger. They had better things to do on their weekend than pare flesh from a pelvis.
I changed into old clothes – paint-spattered tracksuit pants and a shirt I’d outgrown. The tub was too heavy to lift and so we emptied it with old five-litre paint tins, scoop by scoop, into the drain. First came the greasy brown foam that had risen like cream, then the grey soup. The water level dropped in strata until the jumble of bones appeared through the murk. We grabbed the big ones with our hands: femurs, ulnas, clavicles. The rest we scraped up in the kitchen sieve, a mess of vertebrae and wrist and ankle bones that we would one day have to decipher.
“Make sure the dog doesn’t grab any of these,” Dad said, though we both knew she wouldn’t come close.
I helped to keep the bones steady as Dad carved his way around the body, dividing the soft from the hard. Everything was greasy: the bones were soap to hold. I was gripping the pelvis and Dad was manoeuvring the knife when his hand slipped and the blade sliced deep into the back of my thumb.
I had to wait for him to clean up before he could treat my wound. I sat in the passage with my head resting against the bathroom wall, holding folded toilet paper over the cut to stop the bleeding. It took fifteen minutes for him to scrub the tiger fat from his arms and hands and wrists and nails. When he returned, wet to his rolled-up shirt sleeves, he doused my wound with hydrogen peroxide. It stung and fizzed, foaming into pink bubbles that spilled over into the bath.
“That’s it clearing all the germs out,” he said. “It only stings if it’s working.”
My middle brother came to watch, leaning on the doorframe.
“You going to have tiger powers now?” he asked.
From then on I was only allowed to watch as Dad cleaned the bones. The next day, with the help of the gardener he picked up the tub and poured the rest of the water down the drain.
Dad went over the bones one by one with the blade. Then he filled the tub once more and lit the fire and returned the remains for their double- boiling. The water was much clearer the second time, and I could see down to the bubbles jostling the bones at the bottom as though they wanted to thread themselves together once more and come alive.
After work one evening, Dad fetched me and took me to the museum with him. The cut had scabbed over; in the car I played with its frayed edges. We parked under the lucky bean trees and crossed past the front entrance, past the bronze coelacanth, to a pair of tall rusted gates topped with razor wire. A man came to greet us.
“So it was you who got the tiger?”
“Most of it,” Dad replied.
He showed us into his work room. It smelled of cigarettes and spray paint. A snot-coloured urethane duiker stood on a table surrounded by photostats of live antelope, running or hopping over rocks. Instead of hooves, though, this one’s feet ended in wire pins. Along one wall was a huge chest freezer for keeping bits and pieces of animals in until they were ready to be reconstituted, and on a bench across from it was a deflated gymnogene, its feathered skin peeled off and then flipped the right way round like a worn sock. Over tea, he showed us how to wire bones together using a drill, copper wire and glue. It looked simple enough but he suggested we practice first rather than get it wrong on the tiger.
“Roadkill is easiest,” he said. “Just keep a black bag in your cubby. Or maybe you’ve got an old dog?”
After he’d shown us the wirework, he and Dad got chatting about a mutual friend whose yacht had run aground and I edged away from the conversation, past the mounted hyena head and up some wooden stairs.
The attic was dark and filled with stuffed creatures, weathered and dull. There were rows of birds, each dotted with borax powder to stop the bugs, and staring blackly out of glass eyes: penguins, falcons, pigeons, loeries and vultures, set side by side, unnaturally close to one another. A nervous baboon sat in one corner holding onto its knees. Above it hung an orangutan, its hands worn down so that the white plaster cast showed through the black skin. Beside a tapir with alopecia there were glass-fronted drawers full of insects and hummingbirds and field mice and tiny dried fish, all labelled in scratchy, handwritten Latin.
And on top of the drawers, jostling for space with tiny birds on wooden perches, were skulls, lined up in a row from big to small: genet, civet, caracal, cheetah, leopard, lion and tiger.
I picked up the tiger skull to feel its weight. It was heavy with teeth. I inspected the incisors, running my fingers over them and feeling the blunt points, and I wondered whether we could ask to have it since it was just sitting here. Perhaps if I found an excuse to come back, I could stuff it in my school bag and take it home to complete the skeleton. It would be years before anyone noticed.
Dad called me down and we re-traced our steps back to the kombi, carrying a coil of copper wire and a pack of clear two-part epoxy.
“What did he say about whitening the bones?” I asked.
“Shouldn’t use bleach,” Dad said. “Rather paint them with peroxide.”
The next weekend, I watched Dad empty the tub for the last time, five litres at a time. Then he fetched the peroxide from the bathroom cabinet and poured it into an old feta cheese tub. He put on washing-up gloves, and then he picked up each bone and painted it with the clear liquid. I expected them to fizz but they didn’t.
Dad placed the bones to dry on an old dog-washing towel. They were yellow and almost transparent, saturated with the grease of zoo food, the frozen bulk braai packs of low-grade chicken pieces.
The bones sat in the sun for a week, until they were dry to touch, then Dad packed them into brown paper bags, which he labelled as meticulously as he could: Tibia + Fibula; Left (?) Scapula + Lumbar; Misc Metatarsals L+R mix; Tail vertebrae ad infinitum.
He packed the brown bags on a high shelf in his study, behind some books. He put away the tub and the bricks, two by two, and the cursed knife. There was a big black burn mark on the patio and the constant dampness of an oil stain like a halo around it, where the broth had spilled from under the rim of the tub.
The dog emerged from the jungle of palms and wild banana trees beside the swimming pool and took to eating again, though she would not be bathed in that tub and she avoided the area outside the kitchen door. The next time we took her to walk on Nahoon Beach, she disappeared into the tree line above the dunes and we fetched her that evening from a woman who’d read the number on her collar.
“Probably chasing monkeys,” Dad said.
Two years later I was standing on Dad’s wooden draughting drawers – looking for a reference book on the top shelf in his study – when I found the bones again, nestled together beside the coil of wire and the glue. I took one of the bags down. The paper was saturated with grease like a leaky Chinese take-away.
I opened it. They were still yellow and glassy, despite the peroxide. I imagined the stubborn fat that soaked up the calcium was her ghost, still haunting her bones, driving the dogs into hiding as she stalked the neighbourhood at night, unwilling to be forgotten.
And I wondered about the rest of her – her skull and her skin lying on the floor somewhere, and about her kidneys and claws and cartilage that had been sliced away before she had come to us, and also about the blanched off-cuts and the fat we’d poured down the drain. We had tried to whittle her down to her solid core, to her essence, but even that was incomplete.
There was one other bone missing apart from the skull: the very last vertebra from the tip of her tail. Dad had seen it slip through the wire mesh that he’d put over the drain. It was barely bigger, he said, than a full stop.
- Exclusive: Read Mark Winkler’s “Ink”, which won 3rd place in the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Competition
- The Spark: Alex Latimer on The Space Race
- Fiction Friday: Read Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer’s “Sweet Water” on FunDza
- Alex Latimer’s Novel The Space Race Launched with Diane Awerbuck