Scattered from the Mountain
Updated: Jan 14
It was almost 35 years ago to the day that his father had told him that he wanted to be cremated. H at the time had just started discovering the wonders of masturbation and so death was the furthest thing from his mind when his father brought up the topic at breakfast between coffee and toast. It took H a moment to understand what his father was talking about, steering - with great effort – his thoughts away from the magazine cover he had caught a glimpse of in a shop window, making sure to save the image in his mind for later use.
Instead of answering his father’s request with a “yes, daddy” as a good, obedient son would have done, he responded like this:
To which his father replied:
“I want you to scatter my ashes from the top of Table Mountain”
“Because I’ve never been up”
“Why don’t you go up now?”
“Because”, and his father took a brief but noticeable pause here to indicate that he was about to say something that his son would not like, “I have to work hard to put food on the table for your greedy stomach and there is no time to go up there.”
“Ugh”, he uttered - or perhaps a similar teenage sound - but he knew that it was true.
His father continued talking but H was failing miserably at pushing aside the re-emerging images, and so his father’s voice drifted somewhere into the ethers of his mind, almost inaudible until decades later when his father’s wish suddenly became important to remember. For a teenager raised in the 80s, H and his father had a rather open relationship, one where ‘talking back’, so long as it contained humour or wit, was not punished by lashings like in some of the other households H had witnessed. In fact, H knew a number of families in his neighbourhood where “being clever” seemed a sin and was punished quite unimaginatively by a clap with a shoe or a lashing with a branch or if those were not within reach, with the slap of a bare hand. H had only ever been hit once. He had used a then rather often used word denoting a specific group of people, and he had done so without any malicious intent but merely to set apart one person from another in a rather banal situation he was trying to describe. But his cheek stung badly as he looked in shock at his father who seemed equally surprised, as though he himself was not responsible for the red demarcation of a hand now clearly contouring H’s face. After the first moment of shock had worn off, his father whispered into the awkward silence ‘don’t ever try to put yourself above someone else’. And that was all he said before disappearing out of the front door. He did not speak to his son until the following day, when he enquired about who had eaten the last koesister he had so looked forward to. They never spoke about the incident.
Only now, 35 years later, with his father on his death bed – a couch placed in the centre of the living room from where he had a perfect view of the living room, the kitchen and the flowering hibiscus tree through the window facing the yard – did H suddenly understand the significance of that face slap. He was busy frying up some eggs when his mind revisited the old memory and suddenly understood the meaning of what had occurred that day. His father had not hurried out of the house because he had been annoyed or angry but because he had felt two separate instances of shame. One, for having failed at raising a son that was aware of his place in the world and could utter such a painful word so easily and two, because he had failed for the first time in his life to restrain his own anger. When H’s mind returned to the present moment and to his eggs, he saw that they had burned to a blistering crust. He threw them into the yard for the dogs to eat and decided to apologise to his father for having ever housed that word in his mouth. His father appreciated the gesture and in turn apologised for having raised his hand at him that day. All things now settled, and no regrets or secrets left to share, H thought that perhaps this meant his father could leave his physical restraints plagued by pains behind and move on peacefully to the next level. But he lived for another 58 days after that and, having nothing more revelatory to say, the following weeks were spent mainly telling jokes or reminiscing about the nice things that existed in the bad old days. Like summer holidays enjoyed at over-crowded beaches trying to stand knee deep in the shallow end of the ocean without getting brain freeze.
Then, suddenly, 58 days later, when H had become so used to his father being on his death bed that it no longer seemed like a death bed at all, he was gone. H had just gotten up from the sofa and walked to the kitchen to fetch his father some more sugar for his cup of Rooibos tea (“One more spoon of sugar won’t kill me!”) when he remembered a joke he had read in the newspaper that day that he thought his father might appreciate. He traced his steps back to the living room to present the joke only to find his father gone. Not that his body had physically disappeared, but H sensed instantly that his father’s body was…well, empty. He wouldn’t have been able to describe it other than in that way; that he looked distinctly ‘without a soul’. Gone. Just like that. H had thought somehow that it would be more dramatic, the ending, had not expected a fade out like in one of those mediocre plays or films where the final scene comes on suddenly and leaves one sitting, incredulously waiting for something more to happen until the credits roll in and force you to accept that it is over. H had expected more of the ending. And just like a theatre audience that slowly and awkwardly realises that it is now expected to clap, the realisation dawned on H that he too was expected to do something. But he wasn’t sure what that was. Surely not clap. Call the doctors? The ambulance? Or sit down next to his father and maybe gently hold his hand in case some part of him was still present and needed comfort during his transition? He decided to do the latter and so he sat down beside him on the floor and slid his own hand into his father’s, dangling off the couch by his side. H had never realised how large his father’s hands were. Much larger than his. It made him feel like a child, which was most likely also the only other time they had ever held hands like this. Unsure of what to do, he told his father the joke anyway. He realised as he told it that it was not really all that funny after all and so he was hardly surprised after delivering the punchline, that there was no reaction. After a few moments of silence, he placed a kiss gently on his father’s head and then felt with surprise that a tear rolled down his cheek although he had promised his father not to cry. Not because his father was of the old-school conviction that a man should never make use of his tear ducts, that they served a purely decorative function, but because he believed that there is nothing worth crying about when a man who has lived a good life dies at such an old age. H made to wipe the tear away quickly, but he was too slow, and it landed on his father’s cheek. This made H cry even more because now it looked like his father was crying and that one was a painful sight. When H was finished, he discovered he wasn’t sure how long he should sit like this to honour the occasion. The question was answered by a pain in his knee and he got up slowly, realising that he himself was also no longer young and he imagined himself lying there in his father’s place, with his own two daughters watching his empty body. He shook his head, called his father’s doctor and then his mother and then that was that.
And now he was here, walking up this bloody Table Mountain in midday heat, cursing his father for having died in the middle of the hottest summer of the last decade. He wondered whether his father could have imagined that he would live 35 more years after declaring his cremation request and whether he knew that it would mean H being an old man himself, struggling up a rocky path with two daughters in their pre-teen years who verbalised their discomfort with every step. Right now, his daughters, not even halfway up the mountain, were hosting a minor strike. “Daddy, it’s too hot, I can’t anymore. Can’t we scatter them from here?” said T, who was by far the naughtier one. And he was tempted to do just that, but he made to honour his father’s request and pushed them on “We’re almost there, come, you’re still young”. Again, T: “If we make it to the top you can cremate me too because I will be dead.” And she emphasised “dead” in that teenager-esque tone; piercing yet bored. H had continued the tradition of his father, that children could “talk back” so long that it was funny. Although what was considered funny he acknowledged differed sometimes according to age group.
“Move!” he pushed her lightly from the back and she let him push her like that for a minute as they clambered up, out of breath and wondering how it could be that the higher they climbed, the further away the peak appeared. They took another break, although this one was unanimously decided upon. “Water break!” shouted M, the younger daughter, his baby, and T immediately shifted swiftly towards the only speck of cool stone, shaded by a small shrub. H didn’t sit down, too worried that his knee would not allow for him to raise himself again without his daughters’ help, and he knew they would not let an opportunity like that pass without cackling like evil twins about his old and broken body. A young attractive couple, moving with an ease that slightly enraged H, passed them by at this moment and the woman smiled at his children laying here on the side of the narrow pathway. “You look like you’re having a great time” she said knowingly to the two tired faces as she tried not to step onto the backpack that T had dropped in the middle of the path. “We’re going up to scatter my grandpa’s ashes. When my daddy was a boy my grandpa said he wants them scattered from the top and he’s not allowed to use the cable car, because he mustn’t be lazy”. L had both a skill and a bad habit of opening up to strangers indiscriminatory. “But my daddy is old and wants us to take breaks every two seconds” T added, to round off the story. At this point H dropped in a word. “Stop embarrassing me in front of strangers” And the girls giggled at his feigned outrage and it gave them energy to continue their arduous hike up, only a few more times taking a break. These were mostly initiated by H pretending to call attention to the sound of a bird or to take a moment to appreciate a particularly beautiful view. They played along, too exhausted now to make fun of his age and perhaps becoming somewhat aware of the solemn silence that was spreading across the mountain as they reached the peak, a reminder of the task that lay before them.
When they reached the top and saw the edge of the mountain and the city spread out below like a carpet, H wanted to high five his kids but he didn’t have the energy and so he remained quiet. His daughters mistook this prolonged silence for solemnity and so they honoured what they believed a spiritual moment and too did not speak. It was the wind that interrupted the stillness, a gush of cold air hitting them from behind suddenly and harshly, like an ungentle lover waking up a sleeping partner with an unfriendly nudge. “Daddy, it’s freezing” the girls sang in unison, and H quickly, without a word pulled out from his backpack the two jerseys that he had packed for his girls that morning. They had ignored his cautionary warning that it could get cold on the mountain, insisting instead that “it’s like a million degrees today!”. And of course, such is the life of a father, he had forgotten to pack something warm for himself while packing their bags. While his daughters put on their clothes (neglecting to thank him) H took the box out of the bag and was thankful that he had had the good foresight to pour the ashes from the urn to this light cardboard box. Gripping tightly onto the box he gently shoved the girls in direction of where he believed his late father’s house. He cursed the wind and simultaneously thanked it for propelling him slightly forward with its force. When L came to a halt and said: “this is perfect!”, he agreed. It was perfect. There below them to the left lay Lion’s Head, draped in fluffy clouds like candy floss, signifying a rainy day to follow this one. The rest of the city was cloudless, there past Signal Hill was Robben Island, like one single leaf lost in a large pond. That shoreline that stretched along, housing the most wealthy and the fittest people of this city. Further to the right then the view onto the neighbourhood of his childhood. From up here you could not tell how much it had changed, that the corner store where he used to stand and look at those magazine covers had shut down, making way for a lofty building that seemed to be both office space, café and apartment building at once. Or that the park, once home to a few local drug addicts and favoured hang-out spot for him and his friends had been turned into another mall-like building with not one, but two coffee shops to satisfy the needs of the newly moved in caffein- addicts. None of that was visible from up here. Just some tiny houses of white walls and red roofs that could be made out by his daughters and speckles of whitish-reddish made out by H, who desperately needed glasses.
“And now?” asked T. H carefully took the lid off the box. He peaked inside. All that remained of his father was this dust, waiting to be returned to the universe. “Now we scatter his ashes” he said as he looked around to make sure that they were alone. The cold had cleared the mountain and the few people in the distance were making their way to the Table Mountain shop, presumably to get some coffee. H took a deep breath, smiled at his daughters who both had begun to tear up and then stretched out his hand holding the box and, slowly and deliberately, with as much devotion as is possible began to pour his father’s remains into the wind to be carried into the distance. But H had miscalculated the wind’s direction. H watched in horror as the ashes, instead of gracefully rolling down the edge of the mountain as he had envisaged, were propelled by a sudden gust of wind straight back into H and his daughters. All three of them stood wide-eyed, frozen as the ashes whirled around their faces a couple of times. Then the gust was over, and the ashes settled some here on the ground before them and some there, on H’s collar and his daughters’ hair. They stood silent like that a moment, shocked at how their little ceremony had been hijacked and ridiculed by the South Easter. Then T said “oh my god”, dragging the “o” in “God” very long, almost like she was pointing out who was responsible for this mess. It was then that H remembered how his father’s speech had continued that day 35 years ago. His father had iterated that H should make sure to check the wind’s direction before scattering his ashes into the wind. “But of course that goes without saying” he had added. Now H stood here with his father on his shoes and he couldn’t help but laugh, and once he started he couldn’t stop and his daughters’ joined in, laughter turning into crying and back again until the laughing and crying became indistinguishable. H hugged his daughters who dug their heads into the comfort of his arms. They stood there for another couple of minutes like that in the cold with H’s arms wrapped around their shoulders, looking into the distance, each one thinking their own thoughts. Then they turned to make their way to the cableway in silence (permission had been granted to use the cable way on the way down!). H hastily paid for the tickets and then they stood in line, which was just the three of them. That was a bit more of a bang to the ending, H thought to himself and he wished his father could have been there to watch their spectacular mishap, knowing that it would have made him laugh. “Hope you enjoyed the show” he said quietly as they made their way back down into the city through the clouds.