I enter your bedroom and find you upright and heaving,
your second pair of lungs gurgling at the foot of your bed.
I bring you news about the month, day, the sun
crawling its way across the stoep. Pain. In your stomach.
You’re not as hungry as you are intent on dividing tissues in two,
sharing stories of your lifetime of Lent.
There are always sweets in your chest of drawers,
full-fat cream in your soups and lotion on your heels.
We talk about this bedroom with its faux-fur blankets and view of the garden.
We speak about it all one day caving in, knowing no amount of building
will stop the mouth of this cave from closing in. I’m ready, you say.
Eighty-six years have seen aquifers burst forth, turn to incandescent springs;
eight decades of crawling towards fissures of light in the rock
have birthed a tribe of women that loved men who never returned from the hunt.
Still, the rain clouds above this house tells me the stalactites of your toes need cutting.
A blessing: your great-grandchildren come into the room
to measure your oxygen and blood pressure,
though they don’t know what the numbers on the oximeter mean.
Ouma needs oxygen and so do we—the young learn to point at their lungs;
the old trust in unseen circulation. No need to point
at what forces its way into-and-through you.
We tickle one another. You call us big babies.
Your great-grandchildren laugh and climb onto your potty,
tilting their heads at the mirror and the portrait of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Mine, one says. No, mine, another replies. We all get a turn
to make little veld fires in Ouma’s brain.
When you have the strength, we guide you onto the shifting sands of your garden
to play the Emperor of Ice-Cream in your pyjamas.
Here are your coins for the boatman, Ouma. Here are my tennis-ball hands to hold.
Here is the atmosphere our lungs will always share, emptying and filling with what is ours
only in as much as it is everywhere,
opaque like the ancient birthright of this cave
in which we hold our symbols to the fire.
Jarred Thompson is an educator and literary studies researcher whose poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been published in various journals, notably the Gerald Kraak Anthology Vol 3, Lolwe and Doek!. He was the winner the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Award and the runner-up in the 2021 Dream Foundry Short Story Prize. His debut novel, The Institute for Creative Dying, is out through Afritondo UK and Picador Africa. You can find him on Twitter @JarredJThompson.