A Game of Masks

Near darkness. A smoky, stultifying, seemingly dimensionless space, filled with light strains of plucking strings. A raised dais containing two amorphous masked shapes. Behind the golden visage of one it was hard to discern an expression, the mere eyes betrayed a leering smile, dripping with smug malice. They darted through shades of self-amusement like a pianist’s fingers slipping through the octaves, lightly, nimbly with little thought to an audience. To its right sat a more revealing mask which only covered the nose and regions around the eyes and the full almond-shaped lips were almost feminine in their perfect sensuality. 

A little further from these unlikely companions sat a truly feline apparition replete with silver ermine which completed the impression of predatory intent. A pearl-encrusted mask similarly allowed the lips full expression but, paradoxically they were thin and seemed to have been drawn on in the most cursory fashion by a thin scarlet pencil, attenuating even their corners. An elfin chin  pointed downward to a pair of legs elongated such that they dominated the entire frame beneath the mask. The limbs shone in sequins as they flirted with a pair of towering high-heels, in silver cahoots with the clinging dress that rippled and flowed over calves, thighs, abdomen, subtle breasts and angular shoulders. One could neither discern whether the limbs were coiled to strike out or to assume control of the dance floor which glimmered like a dark pool in the moonlight. 

More strange faces surrounded these three from the shadows, occasionally flashing a jewelled surface, burnished gold or silver, often only eyes would be illuminated but every once in a while lips or ears would be visible for an instant and then would vanish into the murky twilight. It was as if the Venetian nobility had stepped out of the pages of history to gather in some obscure watering hole in the middle of nowhere.

The whole tableau teetered on the brink of the abyss, creaking and groaning in agony, an affront to reality itself, a wart in the middle of a beautiful face. From the middle distance, the squabbling voices and surreptitious whispers carried to the ears, confused babbling, occasional barked commands issued forth unceasingly, carried on by a greedy energy that fed from soul to soul. All the while, a melancholic dance, syncopated and throbbing with the strings played upon the air above the voices, urging, cajoling, drawing the throng ever outward from their shadows. Couples would drift outward, approaching each other as if swimming desperately against a current, then swirling and grappling they would pull each other lower and lower until the opalescent surface claimed them – noiselessly. The absence of any expression of surprise might have seemed bizarre to the outsider, for the throng did not even acknowledge the disappearance of some of its members, so engrossed were they in their own inscrutable self-denial. 

The timbre of the music changed, becoming more insistent, more strident, causing more couples to separate, flow towards the dark pool, mingle in their dance to oblivion. As more and more of the masked throng disappeared, the eyes behind the golden visage gleamed brighter, the almond lips curved upward perceptibly and the silver apparition seemed to pulse with an inner fire. 

A lithe figure stole from the murky wings, sans mask, a teasing smile on his lips, the hint of open spaces in his audacious gait. There were few couples still twisting morbidly on the black mirror of the dance floor who soon made way for the anticipated magnetic contact of the silver-clad dancer and the new arrival. His tight-fitting suit was so black as to appear blue in the indistinct light in direct contrast to the ruddy tone of the skin stretched over his face. He matched his counterpart for height, leaning towards her as they finally touched like two gazelles engaging their horns; indeed, an inaudible ‘clack’ seemed to accompany the clasping of hands and collision of shoulders. The rhythm of their movement was both sensual and combative at the same time, undulating rotations were followed by contact that sent puffs of involuntary breath into the thick air. Inexorably the dark stranger toyed with his partner’s stamina, her cool demeanour unravelled, her limbs wobbled and she began to drop her sinuous arms. In a flash, he stripped off her mask, revealing the ethereal beauty of strong cheekbones, rich earth-coloured skin and even the thin lips seemed to have become more generous. A pair of almost-green eyes shone with the elation of discovery, the predatory posture softened, the space lightened visibly, the dark abyss began to close.

A primordial howl of outrage issued from the golden visage as he and his companion rushed towards their protégé, clutching at her dress. In a movement almost too fast to perceive, she shrugged off the grasping hands, flashed a pointed heel at each shadowy figure, sending them sprawling, clutching flushed faces, one of which had begun to bleed. The other, held his almond-shaped lips, now swelling and split in two places. 

The two dancers joined again, more smoothly this time, undulated gracefully between the heaps of discarded masks that had just begun to glow amber in the first warm rays of the sun.  

The dream continues …

So many vignettes, stitched together in my consciousness. Snatches of the deep blue from the brow of a hill, the bark of a baboon nearby, cold, nobbly rock under my outstretched legs. A distant man on a roof – running! Empty streets, save for dilettante shoppers, meandering along their daily route. Another convoy of obscenely howling vehicles crawling through the streets, flashing out a soulless warning in dead syllables. Blue lights coasting down the ribbon of road winding round my hill, a deadpan encounter with the guardians of the night: “As long as you understand you are not supposed to be out here – carry on …”. 

But always, the pungent tang of seaweed, the crunch of rock underfoot, quiet moments as a bird perches nearby, robins, starlings, sugarbirds, ever-present crows and ibises, the shocking sight of a seal where previously sunbathers toned their skins, the shifting night sky, an alarm from a startled baboon, the deathly call of an eagle owl. These are the substance of dreams …

Otters sniffle their way to the water’s edge, moonlight on their glossy pelts, caracal invade gardens, porcupines carpet bomb the road with their spines; nature breathes: her calls penetrating walls, mingling with the wash of frequencies around the antennae that pock the landscape, erupt from buildings. She gathers herself, throws off her shy mien and emerges on the vacant stage, growing in stature: sensual, vital, no longer the stepchild, or tawdry wench, her innocence restored. Everywhere her face is to be seen, cast upon the spectral moon – craters for eyes, reflected in the blushing pools at last light, the subtle tracks on the white sands, ever-modulating green of the hills, her visage beams from innumerable jewels in the darkened sky, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning, at once aloof and enticing. 

The words of a long-departed poet float across my consciousness: “Man being absent, Africa is good.” Somehow these words jar, disrupt the flow of images …

KOMMETJIE chapmansdunewaves.noirThe nihilism of removing one organism for the sake of another denies the very nature of life, the organic web of interwoven cells, the exchange of energy, the mysterious, indefinable relationship one creature has with all others. Science and reason are apt to reduce all to rule and paradigm when nature is a physical manifestation of the unseen, it needs not a reason to breed, or seek others of its kind, or even to exult in the enveloping skin of the world, to marvel at the sheltering sky. Nature is music expressed in colour, sight, sound, art splashed profusely morning and evening, it can be felt with every sense, can overwhelm the senses with its synaesthetic moments: the green sounds of a forest swaying in the breeze, the hot orange of the desert aloe, the unmistakeable silver that chuckles in a mountain stream. Does this miracle exist to behold itself?

No, Man is intrinsic, holds Nature in a matrix that blends the polarities, Man is water and fire, earth and wind, unyielding bedrock and fluent river, man finds complete expression in Blake’s marriage of opposites. 

This, too is dream and far above the ken of mere language to be conveyed, the mystery of the perfect union of man, woman and thus, divine is the mystery of life. It is only with the edges of our souls that we can reach this summit of being, only with our inner senses fully extended that we are able to hear the music of the divine that we can participate in, tuning our faculties taut, almost to breaking point to capture the notes too high for the ear.

Would that all souls be not dull and fearful of that breaking point in this most noble of endeavours, would that the honesty of being human consumes every self-deception and delusion that has come to be accepted as wisdom. Remove the extra “t” from “truth”, reverse the word and you will see why so many choose to avoid it; instead, choosing its more palatable step-sibling, they fall for Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house, not knowing what lurks inside. 

On The Beach

I had another dream … my feet were coasting over the sands of my favourite beach. I was alone, without the love of my life but there was peace.

IMG_1608Houses seemed deserted but they were soon left behind, even those that crouched on the dunes, encroaching ever nearer to the life-giving water. Even the detritus of man, the human stain, was almost absent in this perfect corner. Mine were the only footprints curving back to the domain of that other life, save for bird tracks, silvered whelk trails and the insect-scurryings of kelp lice. I wanted to sing, but the moment held me in its sacred silence, blue on blue, clothed in the coarse white linen of eons of sublimation of rock and shell. Eventually, words escaped my lips, I breathed out my hymn to the beauty around me as we began to sing together, the tuning fork struck somewhere deep down, vibrating in my core. I say we – it was a dream – because I had lost the thread of myself and together with those unseen ministers who are nearer to me these days, had began to climb a Jacob’s Ladder of melody, counterpoint, impossible harmony, to touch that untouchable realm. 

Cold sea and the whale bones of an old wreck finally terminated this paean, its echoes dusting over the the rusty hulk with more dignity than it possessed. Another holy silence, separated this time from sea and kilometres from the silent dwellings, so that it seemed the wilderness had pressed its searing truthfulness into the moment. Somehow, this failure of man’s endeavour, this stranded surrender to the elements filled me with the wonder of transformation: a purveyor of the dirty goods of commerce had received the impressionist’s brush of soft lines, textured metal; bland colour had been released by a century of sea air to every expression of brown and red the eye could devise. My hand grasped the empty shell of a boiler, enjoying how it pulled at the skin, massaged every tactile organ as its hard carapace shed layer upon layer, becoming elemental again. The crumbling skin under mine, strangely redolent of dark blood, mineral, salty, dripped onto the waiting white shroud at my feet.       

 Humbled again, my knees touched the perfect white, my soul lifted in celebration of this connection of sea, sand, sky and silent ship. The shifting landscape held an unspoken communion, contained the memories that had been deposited here, multiplied a thousand times, mingled with my own that flashed, unscanned over the surface of this suspended time. It was as if the wreck was reading me, locating me on its long-perished chart under the ancient gaze of the cantankerous navigator, who probably refused to leave the ship the night it foundered in the howling storm. The watching mountains dismissed me from this surreal introspection, turning my face toward the living again.

Languid steps, crumpling sand, tang of drying seaweed, delicious cold of the ever-moving face of the sea brought me back over dune to the hard black artery that would convey me to the waking world. Then, voices, at first mocking then screeching insistently, revealed the guardians of this threshold. They wagged violent fingers at me, hurled clashing sounds, spears which I deflected with the shield that peace had granted me, threatened to leave their towers of nihilistic self-absorbtion to compel me into their narrow prison. The icy grip of fear contended a moment with the laughter rising from its well, then broke as I, imperiously, dismissed them with a wave. The perplexing, lingering sensation of the sublime and the jealous hand of entropy slowly brought me back, as the edges of the dream merged into something more substantial.

I cannot say how, but those banshee cries set every jewel that I had taken from that other realm into a breastplate of gold that I wear, now, unseen under my skin. They have placed in my hand a sword that I shake to ward off the grey souls who stalk this world. 


The Pedestrian

I woke up from a dream the other night, that seemed so real I was not sure whether I was back in the waking world.

A beautiful evening on one of my favourite walks: the sea sighing against the dark reefs below, stars luminous above the low hills and the intermittent flash of the green eye of our local lighthouse. Spirit full of the delight of the evening, surrounded by night birds and even the clacking of a hastily scurrying porcupine, I descended towards the first houses on the edge of town. My calm dulled the first realisation of the deadness of the human part of this corner of the world. Tomb-like houses, illuminated with blue or strangely chlorophyll-like light greeted my senses, little sound, save snatches of digitised dialogue floated on the faint breeze. Here and there, some human conversation and a warmer, yellower light was evident but even the dogs were largely mute. In the dream my idiosyncratic nature reflected on the ironic similarity of “mute” and “mutt”.  

Abruptly, I felt like the only human alive in a wilderness of clinical confinement, longing for a snatch of laughter, or the gravel voice of the pub musician, or even the mechanical swish of a passing car. Instead, silence. The sea sighed on, the breeze rippled the dark leaves above and my footsteps seemed unnaturally loud on the roadside pebbles. I began to manufacture conversations with my fellow burgers: “What news about the outbreak?” or “How much longer until the restrictions are lifted? Do we even have any accurate information?” I began to wonder about the substance of this eerie internal conversation when a previously friendly neighbour uttered a disparaging remark about my nocturnal perambulations. In the surreal manner of dreams it took a while to process the remark until I was almost home. 

The creaking of the gate intensified the sudden shortness of breath that accompanied my epiphany – if one can experience an epiphany in a dream. The world had changed forever and had lost its familiar outlines. Somehow, the known world had been stolen from us and we were left with a hollowed-out facsimile, a cadaverous version of true life. A new government briefing flashed across my screen, statistics, meaningless and intimidating at the same time, the usual political blather, warnings, additional legislation, apparitions in masks, even a curiously colourful image of the culprit, a perfectly circular, spike-encrusted wrecking ball, that resembled a medieval mace. As my eyes scanned the different reports, the welter of pandemic-related topics wove a net of panic that held me for some seconds, until the memory of my walk returned with its little breath of sanity.

Somewhat fortified, I found myself outside again, testing the new-found paradigm. Apprehension had been replaced by urgency and a keen appreciation of the fragility of the things that were an intrinsic part of my soul. Every deep draw of the tangy air seemed like the first I had ever drunk in, every step portentous in its intent, the whispering stars had a new voice in their distant abode. Then, in crystalline clarity, it all unfolded.

An insidious imposter had inveigled its way into the the dormant homes. No dog had barked a warning at its approach, no voice had been raised in question as it crossed every threshold, retarding the normal motions of quotidian life, making tongues heavy with its narcotic assurances, burdening minds with shackles of certainty, like a spider paralysing its victim, the neurotoxin of truth spreading to every vital nerve. 

The dream ended with a snatch of a familiar song: 

Hello darkness my old friend,

 I’ve come to talk to you again, 

because a vision softly creeping,

 left its seeds while I was sleeping … 

And then my eyes opened …

A meditation and a confession

1 Shevat 5779


Life is too short for long introductions. This is an ongoing discussion on the interwoven nature of the distant past and the present from the appendix of Africa.


Indeed, truths are often hidden away in appendices that seem useless until their value is discovered by a rigorous, enquiring mind. This finger of the continent on which I live points to the frozen wastes of Antarctica, itself evidence of our imperfect knowledge of the past. Here,  a string of islands, mountains, valleys, larger landmasses and active volcanoes is sugared over with kilometres of ice. Similarly, the ice veils the complex nature of lands taken by an extremely rapid freeze, the cause of  which has not to my knowledge been adequately explained.


If we think of Antarctica as a continent, we are mistaken, as its true complexity is only emerging now. Strangely, one Sixteenth Century map points to a group of lands where Antarctica is located which are ice free. Strange indeed, as Antarctica was only “discovered” almost exactly a hundred years ago and the Piri Reis Map to which I am referring was copied from an older source. Our monolithic, uniformist ideas are manifestly false and are not even useful for even the simplest explanations of our history, let alone pre-history.


This modern fallacy contextualizes our local, misunderstood and misapplied history. Who indeed were the initial inhabitants of Southern Africa? Were the aboriginal population refugees from a conflict zone who discovered an open and safe land? And was that land itself the habitation of an earlier, unknown people who were destroyed by a much earlier catastrophe? I sense the fatigue at the possibility of infinite regression in the argument but the purpose of this blog is to delve deep and go South of the usual explanations. Further, I will not impose a single interpretation on the reader, rather, I will suggest that there is more than one answer to most questions and that a conversation – even a virtual one – is a more profound source of knowledge.


For the present I will leave the aspects of pre-history raised above untouched; instead I use them as analogies of my guiding philosophy: divergent thought allows for multiple perspectives and undermines the narrow approach to diversity which has taken hold in the Southern part of my continent. Diversity cannot be imposed, nor can it be narrowly defined – the process of definition itself is much like the effect of measurement in the quantum realm. As soon as one measures a particle in its quantum state, you alter it and while this might seem like a politician giving him- or herself a license to fib, I compare my limited intellect to the small beam of a torch, which as it illuminates a patch of darkness, exposes an even larger darkness around itself.


To borrow the words of an ambiguous pop culture hero: politicians use lies to hide the truth, artists use lies to uncover the truth. Such is my quest and such is my confession, that at best, I will be an ambiguous hero as we travel South. antarcticpostoffice.1947