Skeleton Beach Backpackers
The sun bobs below the horizon like a sinking coin. The three of us, on the terrace, strangers forcing ourselves to find some common ground before we share a 4-bed-dorm together; before we spit airline issue toothpaste into the same sink and mark our territory with backpack crumpled clothes.
“Let’s play a game”
They wait for me to elaborate.
“Let’s play: How old am I?”
I ask, knowing the answers before they are spoken; yet in the reflection of my beer glass I see the echo of an elderly woman.
Kolmanskop, Namib Desert.
In 1908 a man found a diamond here.
And then there was a town.
But one day, there were no more diamonds.
So, eventually, there was no more town.
Diamonds, town and diamonds, dust.
That’s how it goes in this world.
Something, everything, nothing, bust.
There is not much left to see, unless you know where to look. To the untrained eye, this place is just an over-sized sandbox that belongs to a kid who left his toys out too long in bad weather. Hills of sand inching their way through door jams like impatient tenants, paint curling into fronds of surrender, the roof tiles have given up completely – falling to their death, awaiting burial.
I should have a permit to be here, but I like the feeling of minor league rebelling. Like the kid that sneaks into the back row of the movie theatre without a ticket. No one is getting hurt, it’s just the high jinx of “youth”.
Why should I need a permit anyway?
I have blood. Blood lines, not dotted lines.
My Grandpa, Grandpa Jacks, was a miner by trade. He dragged my grandma, Maribella, here all the way here from Bloemfontein, a city of roses in the heart of an adolescent South Africa. But they came to the party too late to walk away any richer than they arrived. Granny hated it. She grew up working a vineyard. In Kolmanskop there were no trees or shrubs, green was a forgotten color. And the only roses now were the ones on the rim of her chipped Royal Dolton tea set.
Jacks thought Maribella was in danger of becoming ill of mind without anything living around her, so he got her a dog, a Terrier Mix named Dolly, sadly the dog didn’t want to live there either and hitched a ride on the coal train back to Lüderitz a week later.
However it wasn’t until she told him about the fountain that he thought her really off her rocker.
Two kilometers north-west of Kolmanskop.
If you had asked Jacks back then, there was no blooming fountain.
What would a fountain be doing in the middle of a desert?
One of the oldest and driest deserts in the world no less.
Desert madness. It had to be what the miners sometimes talked about under hushed breaths and hunched shoulders. Maribella had taken to wandering and not short distances either. She said she was wandering to pass the time and the more time she had to pass, the further she walked. Until she found the fountain.
But Jacks remained disbelieving, her mind was a suitcase. She must have unpacked this relic from a memory to serve as comfort amongst foreign landscapes. “A fountain with no water supply is like trying to cook over a fire with no flame. Even thinking one out here mad –”
Maribella said the fountain didn’t need water, what flowed from its six heads were scarlet beetles. Ripe and rotund, waiting to be trod, like grapes into liquor.
She gestured to her stained feet one day.
“They are bathed in blood.”
“They are burnt from the sand Mari.”
Jacks ordered her to take him to this fountain hoping to expose her madness and shock her back to reality. Maribella took him. And as he suspected, he saw nothing.
But she did, and so did my mother and so do I.
The catch? If a man can’t see, no one will believe it.
She saw the way he frowned at her. Worry, guilt and self-pity in that crease above his eyes.
Worry, that the woman he loved might be gone.
Guilt, that the choices he made had chased her away.
Self-pity, that he may not be able to raise children with this woman now, not as she was.
She put a hand on his arm, realizing his limitations.
“You look at me that way now. But in the years to come you will see.”
“Me as I am now, always. Like a diamond Jack.”
And so, he couldn’t see the fountain but he did see her as she was, always. Many years after they returned to Bloemfontein and many years after that, as her face stayed the same though his sagged and wrinkled, and succumbed to the god of gravity.
He had to concede as he ran his fingers across her cheek. “My diamond.”
Though she was not to outlive him, despite her appearance. The generation of she and my mother you see, they only dipped their toes in another world, two feet to be exact. Its power was only surface deep, as mine has been so far…
Though standing in the fountain now, for the second time in my life, and treading the scarlet beetles to a paste, I wonder what will happen if I don’t merely bathe but drink this time?
Fountain image from: http://olddesignshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/OldDesignShop_Fountain.jpg
Diamond Mine image from: http://www.miningartifacts.org/Bulfontein_Diamond_Mine_-_South_Africa.jpg
Kolmanskopp image from: http://www.lovethesepics.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Kolmanskop.jpg
Terrier Mix image from: http://www.trahernbt.com/images/oldepictwo.jpg