Mastodon Catastrophes - Breyten Breytenback - Sensitive Skin Magazine


No, the universe remains dark. We are animals overcome by catastrophes . . . but I suddenly discovered that alienation, the exploitation of man by man, and malnourishment, will push into the background the metaphysical evil, which is a luxury. Hunger is evil: that’s all. . . . I’m on the side of those who think things will go better once the world has changed.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, from an interview in Le Monde

for my parents and butterflies

Opening up—Paris, Vesak 1964

Everything can come to rest finally in a vortex of silence. The day’s sounds fade. Late sunlight shines against the windowpane and, through it, into the room where dust motes move through the golden well like dancers in the limelight. Wind rustles the sheets of typed paper. Now you can relax in the cockpit of the chair. You send your mind’s eye like a kite high above the city, so that the mooned orb may scan the horizons. How far are the purple vineyards and the whipped coasts of my country? Are the outlines of hills not the Pure Body of Buddha? Probably not. Or they might as well be those of John Smith.

I whack my eyes on the mountains. Let them go and scavenge on their own and then carry back the tattered scene to the nest of my innards. Slit open the secret stomach. Nothing belongs to you until you have eaten it. Here, then, the contents of my belly. Here they are now lined up, each with a name, I count the heads two by two. They come from beyond blue mountains. What news do you bring from home, Tikolosh?

We are here to wear out death. It’s the month of May. The coagulated blood of trees swells out in flat leaves becoming greener. A dog gallops across the road. In the park, dusk is rising from below along the trunks. The wind falls silent, but flowers still fall; a bird sings and the mountain holds even more mystery. Tonight, when the moon is full, Gautama will die again, be born once more, will scrape the soft snail-flesh from the shell of the unconscious, will die all over. This night, Buddha entered Nirvana; it was like wood being consumed entirely.


Boys at the End of Time, 9”x12” oil/canvas painting by Stephen Lack, private collection

My wife just had her birthday and she still doesn’t understand any Afrikaans. Recently a friend sat weeping in his bed for three days for no reason until his eyes in their sockets were like house fish in their glass bowls.

I’m just a spy, sent out each day on reconnaissance, disguised in hat and pipe and ideas and reason and skin.
But I hope in this way to build a watertight case against life. So that there may later be an end.

Therefore, to add to the foot is an annex to flesh; to append to the hand is to plant a senseless finger there.
Light petals fall everywhere with loud cracks. Cry like the violin. Cry, cry, cry, cry.


Bergen is a city of seagulls and white. It is a colossal sea animal washed up long ago and now disintegrating bloated and slower than death the seagulls are blowflies hovering continually high above the bony cadaver floating on the wind lamenting through the awful scissors of their beaks plunging to snatch up morsels of meat. Sometimes the bells weep sound rolls over the roofs and back particularly when white snow is powdered over the city the churches the boats are all whitened in cocoons of snow except for the gulls they reside above the snow on the wind. I live in a hollow room and sometimes have to hide in the corner the squawking birds are squinting through the windows with white eyes. White stems of rain always fall along the thin windows except when it snows and the whiteness becomes more gauzelike the flakes come to convulse on the sills but in summer everything is different and now an inhuman hard white light thumps day and night against the panes. The whole world is white there’s nothing to eat but still strange carbuncles are strewn over the earth’s surface and abruptly burst open and head-nodding white flowers grow the seagulls alight and inspect the flowers with tilted bone-heads. In the next room an old man is dying in fits and starts I sometimes look through a crack in the wall at his goings-on he sits upright in bed and gesticulates raving with translucent hands and stares at the curtains bulging whitely at the window and quacks no no. It won’t help much the seagulls will get him. The woman with the rounded calves and eyes like birds sometimes climbs the stairs to my room and comes to lie greedily under me on the bed and in the summer she brings a bouquet of head-nodding white flowers I put it in a bottle on the table. At night I hear a racket and when I wake with a start the flowers have already flown out the window they now flutter queweh-queweh in the whiteness out there and look at me with eyes like buttons. Traitors and stool pigeons! The old man who is dying with such difficulty whimpers I can hear his lips splutter. I crawl in under the bed. But it won’t help much anymore. They would certainly have checked out the lay of the room thoroughly.

Suicide 1

(For Jim)

Was it suicide? And if so, why? It happened once upon a summer’s day all of the land was yellow and the flaking earth under our feet was boiling. There was a festival in town but we had had enough and turned our backs and walked away over this bare and knuckled plateau. A long way behind us was the white burning town. With high eyes he told us the earth is hostile here but we didn’t want to believe him. Keeping ours on the hot ground we continued and when we heard a shout we wheeled about in confusion and he was gone, just his volume of poems lay there in the dust. His hollowly echoing helpless cries flew all muffled up to us from below. Oh God J. has fallen down to the earth, Arlene started wailing, and my wife was also crying glittering tears through the nose and I had a hollow feeling in my belly. I squinted down the slit and saw you far below trapped on your back flailing with arms and legs like an insect. Bellowing strings of incoherent words up at me. What could I do? Off to one side was the eye of an underground stream that had to pass close to the ledge where you lay. I plunged my torso into the blue gap (to first reconnoitre) and then pulled out my head snorting and my wife inquired with wormy hands whether it was deep. But I was courageous and took a deep breath and swam down wriggled in the vortex around a bend and shot to the surface of the underground water like a cork. Climbed out and went down on my haunches to talk to you. You smiled broadly with your tanned and freckled head. You were weak, dazed and white-eyed, but perhaps we could have pulled you up by rope through the crack in the skin of the earth where light filtered down to discern the four anxious eyes of the two women (like phosphorescent eggs in a nest). The rag of blue sky was mysterious like a stained glass window in a cathedral. Arlene let down the looped end of a mountaineer’s rope. Laughing I explained to you that it was child’s play and then clambered with whistling gorge up the rope through the opening until I was on top of the world and looked back to encourage you come on come now J. You took hold of the rope between two rows of fingers and started slide-climbing higher but halfway to the top you cried and let go and fell with a smack into the water. Emerged one last time from the churning blue current and then you were gone. For a long time we just sat there on the ground. Thereupon I walked to where his book lay in the dust and picked it up to open it. Suddenly there was a whirr from the pages and the rustle of heavy wing-beats on the air.


And when we heard the cheering we were intrigued and leaned over the balcony railing but three houses further through an open window we discerned only the backs in pink shirts of a group of muscular men. And indistinctly the sound of a voice announcing in measured tone certain conditions and restrictions. The referee! In other words finally the race was about to begin. A few minutes later the first tractor duly belched and took off with the stench of scorched tarmac. A jeep with two constables in blue overalls followed to verify that the rules were obeyed. We watched from the balcony, it was dark as oil, Stockholm was asleep and, through the hollow streets, the roar of the tractor reverberated like the cry of a furious animal in a trap. Then abruptly headlights speared the darkness on the promenade and the tractor charged screeching into the first waves. It was a perilous game. The tractor had to keep up sufficient speed to cleave the water ahead. If it slowed down a wall of bottle-green bubbles would engulf it. The jeep followed the tractor closely to benefit from a temporarily dry seabed. The route would take them through the sea to Germany and back to Stockholm on dry ground. We watched from the balcony, it was as dark as coagulated blood, where the tractors ploughed through the sea arches of phosphorescently glimmering water gamboling in the night air like silver dolphins. Then they disappeared around the cape where the lighthouse swept and the roaring faded to a distant rumble. We all held thumbs for Sven, he was a friend of the house and would need our moral support because he didn’t know the circuit as well as the other competitors. (He was from Lapland.) Fruke clasped a stopwatch in her hand. After twelve minutes we went into the backyard, for they would approach the winning post from the back of the city. Sven later told us he had lost his way as he emerged on the coast in Hamburg. Even though the accompanying guards with their uniforms wet and white from salt plastered against the thighs had not dared to orient him, they did confirm with nods and smiles when his head turned in suspicion of the right direction. Back home he had to find his way through the house by himself, he just had to make it because the winning post was on the town square in front. He opened doors to all the rooms. One was a kitchen, the other, a toilet, the third, a lair, where two competitors who’d made it back before him already lay snoring. But with the fourth door, he at last emerged onto the balcony, ah, in front of him lay the town. Fruke wrapped her arms around his damp waist and said: my darling, if they don’t fuck around with you you’ll be third. Already it was getting light. Northern lights bathed the city in a yellow glow. Towers and castles stood out, ghostly, as if they were a cardboard décor.


Practicing Boy Soldier, 9”x12”, painting by Stephen Lack, 2011, Collection Patric Lehmann, Toronto Canada

And when the sun started to shine, a dense crowd gathered in front of the referee’s house for the official results, how many drowned, etc. Sven and a friend, both in their best blue suits and with caps on their heads, sat waiting in a trailer. Sven took off his cap, his hair standing up in the breeze, and turned his noble profile to the light. A man with a top hat asked if he could wait with them in the trailer. He lifted the top hat and his hair was sparse and grey, the flesh of his face, dry and sunken.

Broken ascension

Melancholically, he puts on his small white hat and goes to stand by the window his back turned to the old man on the bed peers out on the emaciated autumn day people walk by with their heads pulled to their shoulders. The old man on the bed groans rolls around beats his limp hand on the cover: in god’s name it’s market day he whispers. Ne turns his head with the white hat and says yes and shuffles to the bed to deposit a damp spot with his lips on the old man’s forehead and leaves the room. Remember it must be old the old man whines behind him. He knows jesus he knows it only too well. Wanders for hours on end among the market goers fingering the offers on the meat tables with infinite care haggles about prices finds it hard to decide on a buy and reflects: if only I were rich, not as hobbled in my choice, or had an undertaker or murderer or apostle as friend, but now I am strapped to second-hand angel’s legs. And eventually after much prodding and sniffing he closes a deal on one already decaying limb. Wraps it in the Sunday newspaper courteously lifts his small white hat and heads home the old man awaits him breathing for breath the chin wet with drool just the greedy eyes peeking over the edge of the blanket: hurry up quickly give it to me aah. Snatches the chunk of meat under the blanket snorts and snarls and lashes it to the stump of the thigh hard by the penis with thongs and buckles. Rolls out of bed and crows with passionate pleasure hops this way and that over the floor: look oh holy host I’m walking! Which is a euphemism because the new leg is shaking and rattling and rolling uncontrollably bucks and rears like a shark on its hook. And moves toward the window. Ride that leg ride that leg tame the bastard Ne shouts swishing his hat through the air. The old man is breathless help help hold me down stop me help. And Ne cries and wraps his thread-thin arms around the old man’s tube-like waist and digs in. And to no avail there is the acute crack of shattering glass, and leg and old man disappear, squirming through the window up up and Ne glances at the blood spots on the sill and moans: every time every time and listens to the writhing old man’s shouts from the clouds and waits. And truly like a shot leaf the old man plunges legless earthward with a sucking sound from the sky a dull thud in the garden. Melancholically Ne puts on his small white hat and screams at the concierge to go warn the doctor and shuffles out. And muses mumblingly: one day one of these days the thongs won’t snap and he will be like Elijah ascending to heaven, and he moves his head.

–Breyten Breytenbach

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