Packing the Cases
by Derek Kannemeyer
Here’s my sister, pitching in to pack the cases,
lining her toy box with doll’s clothes, bits of rummage.
The red pig’s an Alphabet. It says S is for Snow.
Under a baby blanket she tucks two figs from the fig tree.
Here’s my mother by the window, where bars of sunlight
coat the dust with gold. She is singing, as if it’s our bedtime,
singing “Summertime,” singing “Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day.”
Still when I think of her singing, it’s of this day:
of her clear voice rising, singing something in herself to sleep.
Singing, she packs the cases, careful not to understand
just what, as she snaps them shut, she locks outside.
All day my father has been at the police station;
someone is saying, We know you are active in certain circles…
My father fidgets with his hands, wanting to pretend
(Ag, he’ll say later, it was to scare us only)
that this man’s only his own Dutch cousin, from whom he knows
this face of bland, not quite amused contempt.
Cape Town, November, spring 1955; with winter, England, coming.
I’ve just turned six. In a corner I’ve begun to stack
what I don’t want shut away just yet. I stand with the box open,
I hold my arms out to the window, I am moving through the hall—
now the front door’s by me, now the stoop. The wood
gate widens, I’m to the street, and running.
In the corner park, I lie and watch the sky.
Light’s threading through like film.
Remember by the swings, how I’d take off my sandals and forget them,
how overnight the grass would limb up round them, thick as a pulse?
Now it’s morning, and I fill them with my hands, fingering the toes,
idly reluctant to lift them free. Dew pearls on the thongs.
At my wrist, my chest, my neck, rising like a voice, I feel the sun.
Master bronzesmith, bend across the veldt;
lean your massive forearm over Table Mountain,
crisping the creases from its cloth-white clouds; deepen its greens
to a dappled spectrum; our skins to a glow of consonance,
like coins clattered to kiss in a wishing well.
At the bottom of the garden is a gate; sitting on the gate I hear the trains…
But goodbye to that as the boat pulls out. Goodbye to the black maid,
my sister, slipping into the illegal darkness. Goodbye
to the white friends, my brothers.
Master bronzesmith, tint the photographs:
in your luxuriance of light. And stretching behind us in the ship’s
white wake, husked back and back to the immaculate sands,
cast, in its statue of brown arms reaching,
my child’s peeled shadow.
AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: With my mother and sister on the boat from South Africa to England, December 1955.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I’ve lived in four countries—I’m now on my third nationality—but this first move was the one that marked me the most. Whether I write about it from the Cape Town or the London end of the relocation, there are always the same mixed feelings, of deliverance and loss, of love and longing. A longing that went beyond the personal into the political, the social, the humanitarian. But I suppose it’s mostly the longing of every refugee: the longing to belong again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Derek Kannemeyer was born “coloured” in Cape Town, South Africa, but was raised from the age of six in London, England. He lives and teaches in Richmond, Virginia. His work has appeared in a few dozen online and print journals.
AUTHOR PHOTO: Spring 2016, Richmond, Virginia.