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  • Writer's pictureBelle Kenyon

Grappling with Mortality and Meaning: An extract from 'Lying Perfectly Still' by Laura Fish

Today we are sharing a powerful extract from 'Lying Perfectly Still' by Laura Fish. It depicts a heart-breaking scene - the death of a newborn baby in a rural South African community. As an outsider visiting the village, the narrator Koliwe witnesses the raw grief of the family as they mourn the loss of this precious child. This scene conveys themes of women's strength, the bonds of family and community, and the suffering that poverty and lack of access to healthcare can bring.

Suffering can connect us across cultures; this scene underscores our shared struggles as well as the dignity and grace that people show even in times of tragedy.

The kitchen door bolts rattle.

“Hey! Mr Cameron!” Rose is shouting. “Mr Cameron!

Koliwe strips the sheets back and leaps out of bed. The kitchen blinds are closed; morning sunlight seeps beneath the door.

“Mr Cameron isn’t here, Rose,” Koliwe calls.

Rose hollers defiantly, “Mr Cameron, come quickly! The baby’s sick.”

Koliwe draws the bolts back. “Should I phone for a doctor?”

“No.” Rose shakes her head. “You can drive the car. You will help, Xolile?” she cries desperately. “You’ll bring Queenie’s baby back?”

Koliwe must help somehow. She almost flies in her hurry to get out of the house. The sun, an orange strand, slices in an indigo sky. The barking dogs rouse the new guard as she shoves open the garage doors.

Rose drags Nathi from the gardener’s block. His eyes are swollen, his body shakes with sleep. They bundle him into the car, then tear along the gravel track and into a cool clear morning. Women carry grass for thatching, crops have started to grow. They pass schoolgirls in stark white blouses and brown pinafore dresses, a patchwork of small arable plots, then speed over the hill as sunlight races through the grasses, turning off at the dirt track to the homestead near Nhlangango.

Chickens scratch in the dust around the rondavel of plaited grass. Koliwe positions herself behind Rose in the open doorway. Queenie lies inside on a threadbare blanket draped across the metal bedsprings, her reddened face rigid with fatigue. She levers herself onto her elbows to sit upright. The place reeks of the unfamiliar – new life, stale sweat, fresh blood. Queenie puts the baby to her breast and tries to nurse him. Tears streak her cheeks and slide down to the little boy. Nathi’s sister, Sophie, crouches beside Queenie’s knees to support the baby’s spine with her hands. A girl aged about four sits beside the bed, obstinately absorbed in pounding a postage stamp down with her fist, trying to make it stick on the earthen floor.

Rose whispers in Koliwe’s ear, “Both grandmothers were at the birth.” She points to a woman beside Queenie whose face looks toughened by life. “That’s Sabisile.”

Sabisile ushers Koliwe further into the hut. Rose glances at Koliwe over her shoulder in doubtful expectancy, as if to say Bring the baby back to life. Koliwe realises the family sees her upbringing in the west as a source of special powers.

Sabisile disentangles the baby from his mother’s arms and snuggles him against her own cheek. His puffy eyelids are welded together. Koliwe shakes her head when Sabisile holds the baby out to her.

“Take him,” Sabisile says.

But breath no longer moves in the infant’s chest. Koliwe is completely powerless, and feels increasingly feeble as the strength of the sun burns her back. Her mother is dying of cancer, propped up with pillows in bed. There is no body movement; her face is whiter than the sheets. Koliwe is climbing the ladder of anxiety. She wants, needs, to succeed at this. She is burdened with guilt and responsibility, as if she herself creates death. Xolile stirs. Aware of her own weight and shape, of the pressure of the baby’s fragile head in the fold of her arm.

“Thank you, Xolile.” Sabisile relieves her of the boy-child’s body, then returns him to her daughter’s arms.

Three women make their way across a stony hillside towards the birth hut, carrying water from the river by balancing tin buckets on their heads. The first bears a yellow coverlet; the second, a woven necklace of rushes; the third, bundles of baby clothes.

Leaning from the window, Sabisile waves. “Your sisters have come,” Sabisile says to Queenie, walking to the doorway to greet them.

Nathi is motionless, as though he has been dreaming, and at the sound of Sabisile’s voice, awakes. Anguish shows in his dark brown eyes, agony in the lines of his brow.

Sabisile avoids his gaze, muttering, “Say it isn’t true.”

Queenie’s sisters lift the buckets from their heads to place them by the door. Three shimmering circles of water calm; the sheen on the surfaces, gleaming like sovereigns, reflects the yellowish dawn.

The first sister does not enter. The second kisses the baby’s forehead then runs. The last drops the coverlet in the doorway, falls to her knees on the reed mat and covers her face with both hands.

Queenie sings softly to the tiny limp form clasped to her breast. The baby’s head lolls to one side under her chin. Nathi pushes past Koliwe and peels his son’s body from Queenie’s dress. Nathi’s wife becomes silent. Nathi carries the baby in the crook of one arm, cradled to his chest. The little head rests in the palm of his hand.

Rose passes Nathi the folded coverlet. He opens it, spreads it over the body. Two skinny legs poke from beneath. Nathi touches tiny crinkled hands, still warm, supple. He moves the delicate fingers. Ten tiny toes.

“They work well,” he says.

Queenie lies on the coarse blanket and shields her tear-stained face. Sabisile puts her arms about her daughter. Nathi’s cheek muscles flex and contort; wrinkles flow across his brow; the corners of his mouth twitch as he swallows. His eyes are laden with unshed tears.

Koliwe is the intruder at a family gathering. And yet Nathi takes her hand and holds it in his, close to his son’s lifeless body.

“I’m the father,” Nathi says to her. “See,” he adds, grimacing. “They look like my hands. Mamma’s face too.” Lifting the baby to give to his sister, Nathi turns heavily and takes leaden strides from the rondavel and out across the hills.

Sabisile and Sophie carry the baby on a tiny wooden bier and carefully position the body in the posture of the newly born, and the dead. Elbows close to his sides, forearms upwards.

The return journey is slow. The sun’s rays stream across pineapple fields, striking the slender tips of leaves and defining their sharpness. Rose says this is the fifth baby Queenie has lost. Although the mourners do not cry out loud, their inconsolable grief, a wail of agony, is sustained in the blue air.

What were your main takeaways from this excerpt? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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