A New Dawn at the Bottom of the Globe by Sine Thieme
Wide awake I stare at the walls of what is to be our bedroom for the next few years. I can’t sleep, even though it can’t be past four in the morning. I listen to the unfamiliar noises around us. A dog is barking incessantly, answered by more distant yelping. Every now and then, the revving of a motorcycle drowns out everything else, then fades into the night. Suddenly a scream pierces the din, a marrow-shattering screech that sounds like the slaughter of a pig – not that I’ve ever witnessed such an event. What on Earth could make such a noise?
I twist and turn, careful not to disturb Noisette beside me. Though, truth be told, he is the one to blame, if I were to lay blame, for my predicament. Without my husband and his corporate job, we wouldn’t suddenly find ourselves on the bottom of the globe, as far removed from our quiet suburban life in Kansas as I could ever have imagined. Without him, we wouldn’t have packed up our household during a January blizzard and taken our four kids out of school to start the schoolyear over again in the Southern hemisphere. I don’t know how he does it, sleeping on the plane and then sleeping again at night, while my mind is buzzing with thoughts of the looming day and the 27 items on my ever-expanding moving-in list.
The occasional car is making its way down the hill from Diepsloot, engine rumbling, its light beams illuminating the bedroom ceiling. My thoughts wander to what we were told just yesterday about the impoverished township so close to our new home in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. After we gathered our bags from the carousel and before we even left the airport, our driver with the fitting name of Innocent gave us a stern talking-to: “Some places in Sout’ Africa, you must nevah go thea, they kill you thea if you not cahful!” Diepsloot was on the list he then rattled off.
It was not the first time we were warned of a terrible fate if we let our guard down for an instant. When the prospect of an expat assignment in Johannesburg first came up – it now seems a lifetime ago, even though barely six months have passed – I went online to Google South Africa, and my jaw dropped. The country was a cesspit of crime and we were going to be murdered for sure if we dared set foot on its shores.
But now that we are here, I’m less concerned with the prospect of my murder. Rather, it is the murder of whatever creature I heard just a minute ago that sends shivers down my spine. Surely something must have been in mortal danger to utter such a blood-curdling screech. If I have to listen to this racket every night, there is no way I’ll close an eye while living in this country.
Again my thoughts drift, this time to the more pressing details of today’s errands. I’ll have to buy food to fill our bare refrigerator. I’ll have to figure out where the grocery shops are. And I’ll have to figure out how to get there, because Noisette will drive our rental car to work, his new job already in full swing, leaving me behind to tend to all affairs of household. Before any of that, I’ll have to walk the kids to their new school and pray that none of them have a meltdown over not knowing where to go or wearing the wrong piece of school uniform, a real possibility for a family so utterly unacquainted with preppy blazers, plaid skirts, and crest-bearing neckties.
By now the screeching has reached a cacophony, and I slip from under the covers and tiptoe through the open door onto the spacious balcony. It’s vast, as balconies go, and totally devoid of any furniture. All our lawn chairs, along with the other household goods, are crammed into a 40-foot container that has yet to round the Horn of Africa. Or was it the Cape of Good Hope? I don’t rightly recall. I lower myself against the tiled wall, carefully avoiding what I recognize even in the twilight as a blanketing of bird shit. When I look up I can see why: The terrace is covered with a row of beautiful wooden beams, a veritable invitation to pigeons, that one species in Darwin’s vast catalog that connects all life the world over, no matter how remote or exotic. Maybe the culprits responsible for the abundant droppings around me were also responsible for waking me up? But I quickly discard the idea. That otherworldly scream still reverberating through my bones cannot have issued from a pigeon.
And then the most glorious thing happens, something that lets me forget the lack of sleep, the murderous shrieking, and the fretting about things to come: A sliver of orange rises over the horizon, timidly illuminating first the rooftops, then the houses below ours, then the river bisecting our neighborhood at its lowest point. Impossibly fast the sliver grows into a glorious ball of fire that even this early in the day radiates heat.
The sun has risen over Africa.
Starting out the day with this private viewing from my bird-dropping-covered perch, I let out a long sigh of relief. I just know that everything will be alright today.
And possibly for the next three years.
This is an excerpt from a first draft of a memoir about the life of an American expat family in Johannesburg. To learn more – and to learn the identity of the night-screaming creature – visit my blog, Joburg Expat.
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