It was horrible having a beautiful mother. An intelligent one, too. Jana sat with Breda, her mother, on the train from Berlin to Aarhus, wondering whether to take a bite of one last chocolate cookie. She had finished the sandwich she packed hours ago. Only it wouldn’t be the last cookie, she knew, because there were at least half a dozen left in the packet. The beautiful, intelligent mother opposite her would frown.
Breda was picking at a couscous salad with olives and mint, declaring it tasteless, substandard, and wondering why the world couldn’t deliver on something as basic as a salad at a train station. She hadn’t had a decent lunch on any train in years. If the powers that be couldn’t figure that out, how did they think they could ever tackle issues like global warming, refugees, maternal mortality?
Breda stuffed the plastic container into the trash receptacle with strong but delicate fingers and back to her computer, to the photographs she had shot the year before. She gazed with some pleasure at slides she was planning to lecture on at Gallery Image—pronounced ee-maah-zh as the French do—over the coming week. This series depicted people living in asylum containers in Hamburg Harbor. It began with shots of the approach, gradually moving closer, picking out details—beside a garbage bin, a soiled disposable diaper, which looked as though the child had had diarrhea; an ancient solitary sneaker, appearing miserable without its companion. She had composed the contours of pavement and embankments into frames that became increasingly constricted until she was right inside a container where a mother from the Central African Republic had allowed her to take a shot of her baby’s bath time and a man from Chad had agreed to let her photograph his naked feet with one big toe missing, the result of an infection from a thorn prick on his way to Algeria and the coast.
She drew teardrops in the heart with the side of her little finger and closed her eyes. She imagined a train that went on and on, never stopping, to a destination it never reached.
A few minutes after Breda got back into the stride of her work, planning the beats and nuances of her presentation, the intercom crackled, announcing that they would be arriving at Aarhus in a few minutes and that this was the last station, so everyone should leave the train and be sure to collect all their possessions.
Jana’s cheeks creased as she smiled in relief, and the ripe yellow pimple in the angle of her nostril throbbed as though it would pop. Now there would be no screen pushed in front of her, no request for an opinion about the composition of refugee toddlers crawling around with a woman having her hair braided in the background. She had no interest in refugees—never had, never would. She had tried to watch the latest episode of Germany’s Next Topmodel on her cell phone during the journey. She had deliberately skipped the program this week, saving it as a special treat for the fourteen-hour train ride. (Her mother had booked the slowest option, since it was the cheapest.) But then the train had left at midnight and Jana had slept most of the way, so that by the time she’d looked for the link to the show, they were over the border between Germany and Denmark and it was no longer available to stream. She closed her eyes, trying to see the fabulously made-up models in their designer gowns, staring haughtily into camera lenses and gliding so easily down catwalks. They were so different from herself, they mesmerized her.
The train slowed down. Jana looked out of the window, her face so close to the glass that her breath clouded the pane. Since the train was not hurtling off to another destination, Breda would not snap at her to hurry, to be careful not to drop things. She drew a heart in her breath. There wasn’t much to see as the train slowed in its approach to the station. She drew teardrops in the heart with the side of her little finger and closed her eyes. She imagined a train that went on and on, never stopping, to a destination it never reached. She would be the only passenger.
“my laptop’s much too heavy,” Breda said as the two stepped onto the escalator down to the street. She was the kind of mother who never complained—she prided herself on that—but she made frequent observations, in a tone of voice that indicated how her life had surprised her. Breda had expected to become a famous professor of photography at a top university in Zimbabwe, her native land, or in England or the USA, perhaps even China or Singapore. When she left Zimbabwe for a job in Berlin, she had thought it would be temporary, a stepping stone, a temporary distance between herself and Jana’s father, Harald. Instead, the distance had grown, ending with Harald—the Dane she’d met at a Harare café frequented by international aid workers, who had wooed her with his island in the Baltic Sea—leaving her for a woman who had barely passed her O Levels, who was half Breda’s age, smiled a lot, and had lovely curves as well as teeth. Now he was the one established in the country where she’d been born, the country she loved, and she, Breda, was a disillusioned itinerant lecturer living on the generosity of northern Europe’s city councils.
Jana saw an extraordinary rainbow that arced above the city, shining in the spring air. It was made of glass.
Thoughts of these municipalities inevitably caused a muscle in Breda’s eyebrow to twitch. Yet think about them she had to: They were forever cutting—or aligning, as they called it—their culture budgets. Although the organizers at Godsbanen, Aarhus’s cultural center, had been as generous as they could be when they invited Breda to be in residence for the week, she still had to find other engagements in other towns to pay for their overpriced flat in the ungentrified part of Wedding as well as buy food for herself and Jana, who seemed always to be eating. At least, though, now that they were spending a week together near the sea, she did not have to worry about providing Jana with a vacation this year.
Breda was glad her daughter had agreed to come on the trip, rather than spending the days alone in the dim, one-bedroom flat, where the smell of dog feces seemed ever-present in the summer months. When she’d pitched the trip as a vacation, Breda had been worried that Jana would insist it wasn’t a “proper” break, even if Aarhus was on the sea. She’d been pleasantly surprised and grateful that she’d had no trouble persuading her daughter, who just made a wry face and said yes. This was the third year in a row that Breda had not been able to afford a real vacation. Everything about Jana signaled “failure” to her mother. The girl’s gray eyes reminded Breda of Harald, who would never welcome his daughter into his new tennis-courted, swimming-pooled home. His young wife was only ten years older than Jana. Breda’s was a lifetime of nearlys. Nearly married, or at least committed. Nearly a great photographer. Nearly earning a living.
“Here,” she said, as they stood at the station exit. “Can you lend a hand, Jana?”
Jana had a look of rapture as she surveyed the charming streets on either side of the train station. “Do you taste the salt?” she asked, licking her lips, a soft glow spreading over her full adolescent face.
“This old laptop’s getting heavier and heavier. I definitely need a new one,” Breda went on. She put her suitcase down, repositioned the strap of the laptop bag on her shoulder, and took the shopping bag that had contained their lunch and snacks from off her other arm.
Jana inclined her head so that Breda could sling the bag over her daughter’s shoulder. “Thank you,” Breda murmured, after only the slightest hesitation.
Jana didn’t mind. She was strong, and the bag was really almost empty, just the last scraps of food inside. Indeed, she had given in to the lure of the last cookies in the final moments of the ride. It was a miracle, Jana always thought, how much chocolate in any form could help matters. She smiled, keeping her thoughts from the woman beside her, who frowned on all cocoa-derived confectionary—because of the sugar it contained and because of the unfair labor practices that sustained it.
But as they started toward the corner, Jana felt a dull ache unfold at the base of her spine. It traveled through her pelvis to the top of her legs, making her think of period pain. But she had endured that only ten days ago. Had the tuna sandwich she’d eaten earlier gone bad? Her mother had warned her against it. “Fish? To Aarhus?” she’d exclaimed in their little kitchen. “About as sensible as putting salt in your water bottle and carrying that to the sea!”
Now Jana saw an extraordinary rainbow that arced above the city, shining in the spring air. It was made of glass.
“That’s the art museum,” Breda said. She always Googled a city before traveling there for the first time.
There were people inside the translucent rainbow. The people walked here and there, then came to a halt, sharply silhouetted against the panes of glass, throwing their arms and legs into odd shapes with careless abandon, encased in infinite promise. Jana didn’t want it to be an art museum, the mundane result of advanced city policy. She wanted it to have the possibility it had before her mother named it.
“My legs hurt,” Jana breathed.
“Mine too,” said Breda. “We both endured that cramped train.”
But as the pair passed the building whose sign indicated it was the “Musikhuset” and Breda made a mental note to catch the opera advertised if time permitted, she softened. “I’ll take the bag back if you like.”
Jana shook her head and started down the concrete stairs to the cultural center where they would be staying. With every step, she licked her lips to remind herself of the sea salt that had settled there.
the room in the converted warehouse was big and Scandinavian-spare, which somehow made it friendly, with light from two high, wide windows filling up the ample white spaces.
There was a kettle on the table in the corner with coffee sachets and packaged cookies, but Breda wasn’t interested in having coffee. As soon as she had tested the mattress and nodded noncommittally, she leapt up again.
“Let’s have a look at the town,” she said. “We could see the beach and then do some shopping for dinner.”
In the bathroom, Jana put on her bathing suit under her clothes. She closed the toilet and sat on the lid. The pain at the base of her back had now traveled down to her knees. Maybe it was her period after all? She’d never had pain like this. Her body was betraying her, her hormones making it impossible to be the companion Breda needed, to help her mother make a good impression on their hosts. If this pain kept up, she would have to spend the next few days with a hot water bottle on her stomach, drinking cinnamon tea with honey, the remedy her mother always made her. But she could bear it for now. She forced herself to stay upright. She was eager for a glimpse of the sea, as she saw it all too infrequently. She was a good swimmer—her mother had enrolled her at a sports club the year she started school—but she only ever got to swim in chlorinated water. Perhaps a swim would make her feel better.
She was no competition for the camera, never had been.
Breda took her camera with her. “This is great light for a few exploratory photos,” she said. Jana’s excitement drained away. She was no competition for the camera, never had been. Even when she was a baby, her mother had only photographed bits of her—rings of fat, a trickle of regurgitated milk spilling from the corner of her mouth, a dimpled knee. She was seeing a composition, not a little girl. Soon, as they walked the streets that led eastwards to the harbor, Breda was photographing the quaint houses, with their half-timbered, gaily colored walls and gables. Perhaps they’d do for Christmas cards, Breda thought. She found nothing to say to the pear-shaped girl who plodded beside her. But Jana was pleased to be here, glad she had taken the risk of spending so much time alone with her mother in a foreign city. She imagined life inside the houses: pale pine shelves, orange pouffes and ivory beanbags, stern Scandinavian chairs and tables laden with coffee and pastries.
At the end of a row of sailboats moored in shallow water, the mother and daughter came upon the beach. Across the bridge, Breda took a couple of photographs, trying to think of a spectacular composition to liven up the stretch of boring gray sand. Perhaps she could find some seaweed or scout for washed-up objects.
Jana started to unbutton her coat.
“We’re not staying,” observed Breda, watching Jana out of the corner of her eye. Her attention was captured by a bank of smooth black boulders ahead, and her steps grew longer as she hurried away, watching the Kattegat foaming the rocks with white.
“Do you taste the salt?” she shouted back to Jana, licking her lips.
Finally, Jana thought, following after her.
“Over here,” laughed Breda. She was excited now. She pointed to a dark gray rock streaked with red and yellow ocher. “Could you stand on it?”
“Yes,” Jana said, peeling off her T-shirt. Her flesh pimpled in the air. When she rolled down her leggings, the pain surged through her legs, worse than ever. The insides of her legs felt as though she’d pulled the skin off. What was this pain that kept transforming?
“Good, it’s the white swimsuit,” murmured Breda as Jana slipped past. “Sometimes you do know what makes a good photograph!”
Jana scrambled over the rocks, listening to the seagulls. The pain shot through the arches of her feet, from her heels to the tips of her toes.
Breda took several photographs but quickly lost interest. She would return the next day, perhaps at dawn, to develop her theme. These photos were sketches that showed potential, but she did not see any way to fit her daughter into her body of work.
“Come on, Jana,” she cried, holding up the girl’s leggings.
“Just a second!” Jana called back.
A flock of seagulls swooped toward the shore. Breda could not hear her daughter through their caws. She squinted at the birds in flight, considering whether this was too banal to photograph. Then she let the shining feathers of the birds seduce her.
When she turned to look back, her mother was a tiny speck on the shore.
Jana was standing on the farthest-out rock. The sea was clear green, deep enough to dive into. She closed her eyes and leapt. A wave reached up, pulling her down into the icy water. Jana’s skin tingled, and the cold numbed the pain in her legs. She kicked her feet gently a couple of times. When she turned to look back, her mother was a tiny speck on the shore.
She twisted around to face the open sea. She kicked again. Her legs moved in perfect unison. Power traveled from her shoulders fluidly through her hips to her toes. Thrilled, she promised to never move her legs separately again. Would she have to move by jumping when she returned to the shore, to her mother? Jana ducked under a wave. She wouldn’t think about Breda just yet. With a flick of the shimmering parts of her body that had been her feet, she plummeted toward the seabed. Her fingers plucked at a bubble of seaweed. She nibbled at it as she rose again.
Breda walked up to the end of the beach. She took a few more photographs, then turned her lens back toward town. She had a dim feeling that she had left behind something that had once been dear to her. In the city center, where the inhabitants were beginning to file into cafés and waiters were lighting candles on tables, she bought some vegetarian sushi to take back to the room and sat down to compile the final photographs for her lectures. She uploaded the new ones, just in case there was anything there, and smiled with vague recognition at the young woman in a white bathing suit who looked with such longing out to sea. She double-clicked on her presentation and continued.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is the author of the essay collection Black and Female as well as three novels: Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not, and This Mournable Body, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. She is also a playwright and filmmaker and serves as director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust. The winner of the 2021 PEN Award for Freedom of Expression, she lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.
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