Ali Millar: Dust


The night of my father’s death, I dream of a fox. On waking the specifics blur, either the fox has stolen my food, or I have fed it. This presents a problem when later I try to analyse the dream using an online dictionary. According to this unreliable source, I need to know if I’m feeding it or if it’s stealing my food, this is the part on which subsequent meaning hinges, without it, I am unable to fully decipher the dream. Whatever reading I choose to make; a fox is a bad omen.



The night I dream this, it is the summer solstice, when the veil between this world and the next is at its most permeable. Of course, I think hours later when I learn of his death. Only, in the Southern Hemisphere where he dies, it’s the winter solstice. This contradiction would please him.



When it comes to my father, specifics are hard to come by. I should now be used to the ambiguity surrounding him. Two days after his death I will say to one of my 15 half siblings, this is the gift he gave us, the ability to think through the specifics of a person. Even as I’m saying it, I will wonder if I’m telling the truth. The truth, with him, refuses to settle.



He dies in Bloemfountain, which is not where he was from. I become obsessed with the necessity of solving why he was there. I say, this is not where he was from, but he’s simultaneously been from Cape Town, Durban, Harare and Gaborone, depending on which woman he was seducing at the time. Just as also he descended from Ashkenazi Jews, Russian aristocracy, Poles fleeing Hitler, and a prominent Afrikaans family, just as he’s practiced oncology, cardio-thoracic surgery, money laundered for the ANC and converted from Judaism to Islam for unspecified business practices.

It is highly probable that I’m not best placed to claim to know where he’s from.



The day after his death my cousin undertakes the drive from Alberton to Bloemfountain. To help me visualise this she describes the landscape as this, the sky yawns into the void, she writes, the road shakes and rattles through the dead veld grass, the boredom is unbelievable.

I do not tell her that raised as I was in rural Scotland this sounds much like a home from home, apart from the sky, which is exactly the sort of tedium I crave.



Of course, even in death, my father has to leave us all one final surprise. When my cousin arrives in Bloemfountain, my father’s wife is waiting at the hospital to file papers to release the body, allowing her to give him an Islamic burial.

The surprise is that she is his wife and also not his wife. She is his wife under Sharia Law, but not state law. The surprise is particularly intense for my father’s legal wife of more than 30 years, who is trying to direct his cremation from their home in the United States.

Ah, I think, that it why he’s there.

Look, he would say, at how they fight over my dead body. And then he would laugh, so I knew it was funny.



His legal wife wins his body. He is cremated four days after his death. Throw him to the bottom of the Vaal, she says. My cousin suggests she might be hurt and emotional.

I want to recommend keeping what is left of him in a tightly sealed urn, in full view. Easier that way to keep an eye on him.



The afternoon of his burning I cut dead lilac from bushes; rake leaves I should have last autumn. I gather them in great damp clumps and stuff them into the incinerator, arranging firelighters at intervals, but match after match refuses to take.

That night, as I wash my face in the bathroom, I feel unquiet for the first time in days. I should have known the initial calm I felt was a precursor to something else.

It might have been safest to have buried him, I begin to think, it would be harder for him to escape.

My grandmother called him the stuff of myth. It is specifically this that bothers me now. All I can see are phoenixes, flames and ashes. I will not bring eggs into the house after this.

What have we unlocked by burning him? How long until he returns to claim me?



Lying watching the clouds scud across twilight blue I remind myself that he never did come back for me. I see a child at a window, watching every set of headlights round the bend. At least in this he was predictable. I remember also how when I finally flew alone across the Atlantic to see him, there were photographs of me in his house taken with a long lens along with similar ones of his other children, all proudly displayed along the mantel. Those, my 14-year-old sister said, are from when he came back for you. He managed to take our brother but was stopped at the airport, then she laughed, so I again knew it was funny.



To free myself of him I will sit shiva. In this shiva I will sit in an empty room. I will sit cross legged on the floor and no one will come. I will remain silent for a week.

This is how I will mourn a space.

This is how I will make sure he is dead.

This is how I will come to understand, finally, that space and time makes no sense but is only layers of difference.



I will emerge from this ritual purged and free of him.

I will not think of winged creatures rising from ashes. The next time I dream of foxes, I will not give them my food.

I am done with feeding wild animals.


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