It started with her being dead. She wasn’t really dead at first, but then she was. It’s a part of my life I have tried unsuccessfully to forget for twenty years. No one knows what really happened that day except for five little kids who grew up to be cowering pseudo-adults. Silent and selfish, the remaining five of us lost contact after school and attempted to pursue normal lives. I’d been following up on all of them since we’d parted. Luke was now a rugby coach. Malcolm wrote chemistry textbooks for high schools. Tessa taught English to third graders and drank heavily on the weekends. Raymond was off somewhere in Thailand or Columbia (or was it Prague now?) taking ayahuasca and meditating on top of mountains. And Marina was still dead.
I’d received a couple of emails from her mother over the years. They’d all been warm and curious. She wanted to know how I was, what I was doing, and to drop by for dinner the next time I was back in Pietermaritzburg. I never replied to a single one.
I moved to Cape Town after school, hopping back and forth between failed entrepreneurial ventures that I was sure “would work this time.” I was a writer, and then a food critic, and then a short film director, and then a poet. I still maintain that my week long devotion to Tai Chi has grounded me for life – my energy still flows from pool to pool even as I sit on a couch and consume my weight in tea and salted crisps.
My parents’ fiftieth anniversary came around in September of 2009. I was thirty-one at the time, but still had to ask them for a bit of money so that I could afford the plane ticket to visit them.
Pietermaritzburg was as I remembered it. Suffocating even on the coldest of days. My mom picked me up from the tiny airport in Oribi and we drove to my childhood home. We could have taken the short route that ran past Marina’s mother’s house, but we didn’t. My mom said it made her too sad. It was the same reason that my dad stopped listening to “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton. The though of losing a child was too painful to bear.
In 1989 I was 11. My small group of friends was a collection of strange and pale kids. We spent every break time lurking around the library aisles, picking out new books and inhaling their contents in silence as the free time ticked by. Sometimes Tessa, Marina and I would leave the boys to their own devices and walk aimlessly around the sports field. We watched the older boys play soccer from the shaded periphery, and blushed when the posses of long legged blondes walked by. I was very close with Tessa and Malcolm. We were the only Jewish kids at school, and together with our families and a few stragglers, made up Pietermaritzburg’s tiny Jewish population.
We played together on Friday nights while the Shul service was being held in the living room of an old couple. Errol was fat and drunk and didn’t notice when he farted anymore, and Louise was fat and teary eyed. She almost never moved from her red armchair in the corner. I sat on the floor with my six-year-old sister and the other kids, attempting solemnity whilst trying to avoid Louise’s incessant and teary stares. She didn’t even seem to need to blink. I complained to my mom that it made me uncomfortable.
“Mom, she’s always staring at me. She’s always crying.”
“Darling, she’s old. She’s sad that her own children don’t come to Shul. She wishes she had such perfect daughters. Aren’t I lucky?”
And then I would understand Louise. Until the next week, when the crying and the staring continued.
We made it through the service and then, while the adults had tea and sat by the pool, we played hide and seek in the labyrinthine house. We tiptoed around shelves of bronzed baby shoes, disturbing portraits and lakeside paintings and hid under beds that looked like they’d never been slept in. Malcolm was the best hider. He was so skinny that he could fit anywhere. Once, we found him balled up inside the cabinet above the bathroom sink. It sometimes took us an hour to find him.
Luke didn’t enter our group until one day in October of 1989. It was a flash in the pan kind of friendship, and none of us understood his interest in our group. He was crass and bossy and played rugby with the sixteen year olds, and had often been a culprit in class disruption or the throwing of some poor soul’s lunch out of the window.
It was hot for October, and we were taking shelter from the heat in the air-conditioned library when he barged in on us, knocked our books from our hands and demanded that we follow him to the sports field. He claimed that what he had to show us would make us never want to read again. That may not have been altogether true, though it did happen that none of us got a moment of peace after that day.
We shared looks of horror. We all largely avoided the sports field. Running and sweating were only things we liked to watch on TV, and more than that, it increased our chances of being laughed at or bullied tenfold.
He had his hands by his side and his mouth was turned down at the corners, his brow raised. We all knew that we weren’t going to get out of this by keeping quiet, but our mouths remained shut.
“Well?” Luke demanded
“Ok.” Marina stood up and looked around, hoping that we would back her up.
We just looked with wide eyes from her to Luke. Malcolm tried to pick up his book again but Luke lurched forward and grabbed it. He threw it onto the ground a couple of feet away. The library monitors shushed at him from the other side of the room.
“Are the rest of you too chicken-shit or what?” he asked.
I think it was the use of the swearword that got us out of our seats. It was so grown-up. So mature. We padded after him with fearful anticipation. Was he going to beat us up? Was he going to pour bottles of water on our heads as he had done in the past? The answer, thankfully, was no.
From that day on we spent every free minute on the field with Luke, playing games of his own invention. He was surprisingly creative for the oaf we thought him to be. One day Raymond and Tessa were evil agents, attempting to steal a secret formula from Luke’s lab and on another day I was a crocodile and everyone else was a herd of Impala.
I used to recount my school days in excruciating detail to my parents every evening, but for some reason I never mentioned Luke. I cut out our break time forays into Luke’s fantasyland from my recollections. It felt dangerous and exciting, a thing that made absolutely no sense. A secret between the six of us kids.
We never spoke to Luke outside of break time. Or rather, he never spoke to us. I sat with Marina and Tessa at a table opposite his in our English class, and he ignored our waves and friendly greetings, sneering at us with his bigger, muscled friends. But come break time, there he was in the library, commanding us out to the field. At first our friendship was relegated only to the school grounds, but late in October he had an idea that changed everything.
“We should have a competition to see who can hold their breath for the longest,” he said. We’d just finished a particularly exhausting reworking of Cops ‘n Robbers, and we were just about to return to class.
“Now? But break’s almost finished,” Malcolm said.
“No, idiot. After school. There’s a river by my house. We’ll meet there at four.”
And so we did. We met every Wednesday at four in the field behind the University. It had a small river running through it and was a popular place for people to walk their dogs and for small kids like us to go swimming.
I’d drop my school bag in my room, change into a costume, eat a quick lunch and then hop onto my bicycle. We all lived in the area, and so Tessa, Raymond, Malcolm and Marina would join me on their bikes as I rode past their house, and we would arrive at the river to find Luke there already, waiting impatiently.
He was incredibly bossy, stipulating the rules and conditions from the get-go. Only five people could participate at a time, the sixth had to remain an impartial referee to make sure no one cheated. The winner of the competition got to pick the game we played at break the next day, and the loser had to arm wrestle with Luke. For the first couple of weeks we let Luke win, scared that a loss would send him into some kind of mad frenzy. After a while, he grew disheartened by the lack of competition.
“Shit, man. You guys have to at least try. I wanna win properly.”
And so Marina became the champion for four weeks in a row. One week we timed her, she stayed under water for a whole two minutes. We accused the referees of favoring Marina, of Marina creating some kind of device that allowed her to breath under water like a fish, of Indian girls needing less air than other people. Luke inspected her nose, her mouth, her ears, but no unusual breathing apparatus and no fish gills. Week after week she won, and finally we had to concede that she was simply the best breath-holder in the city. In her games, Marina always made herself the princess, four of us dragons and thieves, and Raymond the prince, sent to save her. We laughed and teased that she was in love with Raymond.
“Oh my god that is disgusting! It’s just because Raymond can run faster than all of you.” She blushed. “If you were gonna save me I’d be so dead,” she directed at me.
We grew tired of Marina’s repetitive games, and wished that someone else would win for a change. Luke said every time Marina won that she would be no competition for the championships that were held in Joburg.
“You know they’ve got these Russian kids there. They’re like twelve or something but they’re probably ten times as big as me. They eat people in Russia, and these Russian kids are gonna eat you if you lose.” Luke smirked at Marina.
She told him that he was just jealous and she kept on winning. One day in mid-November she didn’t come out of the water. When I finally came up for air, the others were already on the bank, drying themselves off. Malcolm had been timing us and said we’d been under for about one minute. The weather was turning fast. What had been a sunny day was quickly darkening, and a chill wind was starting to pick up. Everyone wanted to go home and had given up quickly, knowing that Marina was going to win anyway.
Marina was still submerged beside me, little air bubbles popping out of the water above her blurry head.
I joined the others on the bank, donned a jersey and waited for her to come up again. We were getting cold, and imagining the warm supper that would be waiting for us when we got home only made it worse. A minute passed, and then another. Tessa wanted to fetch Marina out of the water but Luke wanted to see how long she could go for. Another minute passed in silence. Tessa, Raymond, Malcolm and I started talking about the history assignment that was going to be due the next week. We had to interview our grandparents and create a timeline of their lives. Luke lay on his back and stared into the dark clouds. Another minute passed.
“How long has it been now?” I asked Malcolm.
He looked at his watch, “Five minutes.”
We were all impressed. It was her best time ever. We looked over to her and noticed for the first time that there weren’t any more air bubbles. Her arms and legs had stopped moving, but her black hair still fanned out on top of the water.
“She’s bluffing,” Luke said. “She’s trying to freak us out.”
His eyes were narrowed, and he gripped his knees with tanned arms.
“Well it’s working,” Tessa said. She started forward but Luke grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
“I think she’s dead.”
“What? No she’s not, you just said she was bluffing.”
“Well do you wanna go and check? You’ll leave your fingerprints all over her and then the cops will know it was you and you’ll go to jail forever,” Luke said. He was still holding onto her arm.
Tessa looked down, “I don’t wanna go to jail.”
“Me neither,” we all chimed in.
“You were timing her! You’re supposed to be watching her!” Raymond shouted at Malcolm.
We all turned on him, shouting Yeah! and Malcolm!
“It’s not my fault! It was Luke’s stupid game in the first place!” Malcolm retorted, panicked.
“You guys are all chicken-shit! Grow up!” Luke shouted at us and then turned away, grabbing his clothes and making for his bicycle.
“We can’t just leave her!” I called after him.
“The cops will be onto us any moment. We have to get out of here. You guys stay and get arrested if you want, I’m going!” he hopped onto his bike and started pedaling.
I looked back at Marina’s floating hair. She would raise her head any second now and grin at us, I fooled you!
But she didn’t. She floated. It started to rain and I didn’t want to go to jail. The others had already started running for their bicycles so I followed them. I didn’t want to be left behind. Tessa was crying as we rode. We pedaled fast and hard to catch up with Luke, who was already halfway down the road. We shouted and called for him, our voices barely audible over the bicycle chains jangling and the rain hitting the street. Eventually we drew up to him and he stopped abruptly. I nearly knocked into him. He looked at us with the strangest expression, one I still remember in every perfect detail to this day. It was pained and yet oddly contemplative. His lips were slightly pursed and his brow furrowed.
“We gotta ditch the bikes.”
It was nearly six by that time, dark and miserable and at least a half hour’s walk to any of our houses.
We went up in an uproar. Tessa wanted to go back. Malcolm didn’t want to lose his bike – his dead dad gave it to him for his birthday. Raymond was calling it all bullshit.
“Hey!” he shouted over us, raising his hands and quieting the group. “We gotta ditch the bikes. The cops will track our tire treads back to our houses and then they’ll know we were there. We’ll be accessories to murder.”
“I don’t even think you know what you’re talking about!” Raymond said. His curly hair was washed flat across his head. “Maybe you’re the one that’s chicken-shit!”
“You stupid idiot! I’m not scared of shit! You go on your bike then and maybe I’ll visit you in jail!”
Luke rode off again. We had a choice to make. Stay on our bikes and get arrested or follow Luke, the only one with some semblance of a plan. The truth is that we were chicken-shit, so we followed him. We rode on a bit farther and discarded our bicycles behind a large hedge.
We walked together in silence, barely waving goodbye to each other. Eventually I was alone, everyone having already reached their own destinations, and I walked for another five minutes before reaching mine. When I got inside I let my mom fuss over how cold I was, told her that my bike had been stolen and after explaining that I wasn’t hungry, went straight to bed.
I lay awake thinking endless things. About Talmud sections that I’d studied with my dad on Saturday mornings, and about some of the stories my Bobba had told me. Horrible things about dead bodies becoming reanimated to deal with unfinished business, and the souls of good people possessing those that had wronged them. I fell into a torturous sleep. Images of Marina’s floating hair and faces screaming out of it flashed behind my eyes. Watery footsteps followed me home.
We didn’t play games at break for the next two days. Luke joined us in the library and we talked in whispers about what had happened.
Everyone was pale and jittery. Tessa’s eyes were red. I’d been watching her and noticed that she had been crying through most of our morning classes.
“Marina’s mom and dad slept at my house last night,” Tessa said. “There were cops everywhere.”
It was true. I had battled to sleep the previous night because of the flashing blue lights. When I did eventually fall asleep I was visited by the same nightmares as the night before. Marina was asking me why. Why didn’t we pull her out of the water?
“You didn’t say anything?” Luke asked Tessa. He had been unusually quiet. His eyes were darker than I’d ever seen them.
“No, I stayed in my room. I wanna tell my mom though. Maybe if we just explain what happened. It was a mistake.” Tessa’s eyes started to water.
“No! Nobody says shit to anybody. We didn’t do anything wrong but if we go around blabbing to everybody it’ll look like we did.”
“I dunno. We’re just kids,” Raymond looked into all of our faces.
“Yeah but together we’re like fifty years old or something. They’ll add up our intelligence and then we’ll be sent to an adult prison,” Luke hissed.
I piped up and said I didn’t think that that was how it worked, but Luke just shushed me and made everybody swear not to say anything. I’m not sure who we were more scared of, Luke or the police. I imagined countless break times spent being beaten up or stuffed into toilets if we didn’t comply with the former.
“Look, we just gotta keep our mouths shut. They’ll find her and they’ll see that she drowned. Maybe she went swimming on her own. But if we start talking then everyone will think that we did it. The cops aren’t so scary anyway, man. They’re just guys in uniforms.” Luke said.
“I think there are other things we should be worrying about,” I said softly, looking into my knees.
“And those are? I’m not scared of anything. They must just come,” Luke said. He was scowling at me.
I felt like I was being tested. Like I was testing Luke. The images of Marina and the footsteps and my Bobba’s stories were important. I thought we were in very real and very grave danger.
“Well, my Bobba used to tell me – ”
“Speak up! You’re like a mouse!” Luke smacked me on the shoulder. “And what the shit is a Bobba?”
“My granny. My granny told me this story about a little girl who drowned and then came back to life,” I said, inching away from Luke.
The rest gasped, their mouths echoing “Came back to life?” through clasped hands.
“So maybe she’s not really dead? She’ll come back?” Tessa asked. She was playing with the hem of her dress.
“Well in the story the girl was dead. She was properly dead. But her body kind of, well, it came alive for a while,” I explained. “She had unfinished business. Stuff she had to do before her soul could float away.”
Luke sneered. “But when you die your soul goes straight to heaven. Unless you’ve been bad, then you go to hell. But Marina was so boring, she probably went straight to heaven.”
“That’s not what we believe,” Malcolm said.
“Well either way there’s no way she could come back to life. Seriously. Dead is dead.”
“My dad said that your soul hovers over your body for a whole year before it floats away. It tries to go back into your body,” I said.
“Well, fuck it. I’m not scared of ghosts or little drowned girls or anything,” Luke said.
There was a moment of silence, broken when he asked, “But just out of curiosity. What did the little girl in your Bobb’s story do when she came back to life?”
“It’s Bobba. And she tracked down the driver of the red car who hit her and threw her into the lake and possessed his body and haunted him forever.”
“Yeah, my mom told me that her granny was possessed once. She said that it was the ghost of her granny’s baby that was never born that went into her gran’s body and made her do weird things,” Malcolm said.
“Like what?” Tessa asked.
Luke was white.
“Like weird stuff. Like she stopped bathing and eating and she only went outside at night,” Malcolm whispered. “And she killed her husband.”
“I told you already! I’m not scared of anything! And you guys are more chicken-shit than I thought!” Luke stood up and shouted down at us. “She can’t come back from the dead, I’ll sort her out!”
The librarian wasn’t far from us and she stamped over and herded Luke out, threatening to give him detention for disturbing the quiet again. The bell rang shortly after that and we went to class. Later that evening, Malcolm, Tessa and I didn’t feel like playing hide and seek. We sat through the Shul service with downcast faces, and our parents attributed our unusual stillness to concern about our lost friend.
The next morning I sat in the living room watching cartoons, and my mother ran in with the phone receiver in one hand.
“Marina’s been found!”
She disappeared back into the dining room and I stood at the doorway, listening to her conversation.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!
I’m sure she is.
Well I haven’t spoken to her yet but we’ll go round this evening.
No, the same here. Very quiet.
A mystery indeed. But what a blessing.
Yes, Baruch Hashem.
My mother put the phone down. “We’ll go and see Marina this evening, darling. I’m making scones to take with. Heaven knows her mother hasn’t been eating the last two days, but she’ll be fat with happiness soon enough!”
My mom pulled me into a tight embrace, but my arms remained limp at my sides. I wasn’t excited. Something about this felt horribly wrong. It wasn’t right. We had all seen her there in the water. It was impossible.
I returned to the lounge and turned the volume on the TV up, drowning out my mom’s singing and clattering from the kitchen. Tom was trying to catch Jerry again. This time Jerry had created this intricate device from household objects that would trap Tom and then shoot him out the window like a canon. I thought if Tom would only stretch out his arms a little, Jerry might not be so elusive. He was a clever little mouse.
There was a tap on the window. I leaned forward and saw Luke’s face peering at me from behind the lace draping. He beckoned me outside and then disappeared. Luke had never been to my house before. In that moment I didn’t even question how he knew where I lived.
I shouted to my mom that I was going out but I don’t think that she heard me, and then I stepped out the front door.
“Meet me at the river. Everybody else is already there.” He ran off.
Tessa, Malcolm and Raymond sitting on the bank as far as possible from where we used to swim. Raymond lay back with his arms behind his head and the other two were crossed-legged. They weren’t talking.
I greeted them and sat down. The sun was dim but warm, and the trees were rustling in the slightest of breezes. A very different day.
I asked them if they’d heard the news. They hadn’t. I explained that my mom had gotten a phone call and said that Marina was at home with her mother.
“She’s not dead!” Tessa’s face lit up, and then she immediately broke into tears.
Malcolm placed an arm around her shoulders, unsure how best to comfort her.
For the first time since I had heard it this morning, I felt relieved. The ominous feeling I had gotten at home dissipated, and I let happiness wash over me. My limbs felt soft and light and I all of a sudden I wanted to eat marshmallows and marie biscuits, to return to my cartoons and let my mom fuss over me.
The four of us chatted a bit about Marina, that we would let her pick the break time games from here on out, that we would never question her breath-holding wins. We played rock-paper-scissors, looked for animals in the clouds and talked about school. Eventually the conversation died out and we became restless again, wondering why Luke had gathered us here when everything had turned out so well. Half an hour passed in this manner and then he finally showed up. He was dragging Marina by her shirt collar and had his hand clamped over her mouth.
We jumped to our feet. We all started shouting.
What are you doing!
Let her go!
Luke leveled with us, Marina’s shirt scrunched up in his fist and half of her face hidden inside his big hand. She was struggling, but he was nearly twice her size and too strong for her.
“Help me!” Luke shouted at the group.
But we all just stood there. We looked at him and then at Marina. Her hair still looked wet.
“Luke, please let her go,” Tessa pleaded.
“No! She came back from the dead, just like you said she would,” Luke looked at me.
“Maybe she wasn’t dead, Luke!” Raymond cried.
“She was! She was dead! And I told you I’m not scared of ghosts! I’m not going to let her possess me and make my body run around and do weird shit!” Luke adjusted the hand over Marina’s face and I saw that her skin was an odd color.
“Fuck you guys!” Luke elbowed past us towards the river, dragging Marina with him.
We turned to watch him. He slipped down the bank and lost hold of her. Marina tried to run back to us but he caught her again. We simply looked on as he dragged her back to the river. Luke was submerged up to his waist. They splashed and cried out together in strange unison, hers whimpers and his grunts. She was lithe and slippery and to keep her under the water he turned her on her stomach and straddled her, pushing her head down with strong arms. The bank had turned to cement and was creeping up my legs and into my chest, my throat. I felt like vomiting and at the same time, incredibly hungry.
Barking drifted across the field, accompanied by voices and whistling.
Luke looked up in terror, soaked through.
“Help me, idiots! People are coming!” He said through gritted teeth.
Tessa looked back at the slowly advancing couple and their Border Collie, and then she sprinted into the river and grabbed Marina’s feet. She pulled them under the water and looked at us with round eyes.
We rushed to join them. I got hold of her arms and Malcolm and Raymond placed their small hands on her back. Together, we pushed her down until she was resting on the river floor. After a short while Marina’s legs stopped kicking and we let go of her. She stayed pressed against the sand bed, but her hair was spread out on top of the water again.
“Now go home and don’t say shit!” Luke said as he struggled up the bank in water-clogged shoes. We nodded and ran from the river.
We didn’t say anything to anybody. We didn’t talk to each other again. What once had been friendly smiles and waves across a corridor turned into blind eyes and sunken mouths. Luke went back to playing with his rugby friends, and the rest of us still frequented the library, just not with each other.
That night, Marina’s face was all over the TV and by the end of the week she was in newspapers and in Church pamphlets and even on our fridge. I couldn’t reach for milk without feeling my hands clasping around bony wrists, water splashing up around my chin.
Marina’s mother stopped leaving the house and I had to accompany my mom to drop off daily food packages.
Twenty years later and Marina’s face was still on my fridge. I was helping my mother fold napkins for the anniversary party later that evening when I felt dull eyes on my neck. I turned around to find Marina peering at me through the jumble of magnets and sticky notes that had accumulated over the years. My mom noticed my distraction and followed my gaze.
“So sad,” she said. “Her poor mother.”
I nodded and returned to napkin folding. The swan design my mom had picked out was particularly difficult. I thought about writing Marina’s mother a letter, but knew I probably wouldn’t.
She wasn’t really dead.