At night the donkeys scream. It is not a bray or a whiny or other words associated with donkeys. The pitch is wrong. The tone carries too much terror, too much treble to be simple animal communication. I find it impossible to shape a word that might capture that it. My mouth is ill-fitted—lips too thin, my throat constricted. Scream is the closest I get. I lie awake and listen, feel my skin prick against the sound, grow cold and thin.
I am new in the town and do not know what it is I am hearing. It is only in the morning that my landlady explains. She leads me outside and points to the donkeys grazing on the side of the road. It’s chilly and early. The light is thin; the donkeys are solid black shapes against the mottled bushes. They are still, heads lowered in feeding. My landlady says that during the night they wonder down from the township to graze of the fresh grass and plants in the suburban gardens.
In the day the donkeys are put to use. They are hitched. A cart that transports produce from the town to the township and back, vegetables and often firewood sold in bundled. They are on the road bobbing amidst cars that make wide circles. My window is open and as my car passes I hear the hooves, the clatter of the cart wheels on tar, the voice of the driver. He carries a whip and urges them forward. The donkeys are in a bad condition, fur worn through and missing in places, scared and whip-bitten. I look back in rear the view mirror, watch the driver beat the animals. The whip rises and falls. The donkeys shrink back; their skin seems to quiver. I think of Nietzsche in Turin, those final days before his breakdown. The horse-whipping he intervenes in. The something inside him that erupts…Nietzsche throwing his arms around a horse’s neck. Nietzsche sobbing. I do not intervene. My arms are straight, hands clutching the wheel. Who am I to judge? I see everything framed, from a distance, from the safely of a reflected image.
My landlady tells me that there have been programs, schemes run by the local SPCA to rehabilitate the donkeys. I think the word is wrong. Or maybe not the word but its relation to the donkeys. It is not them who require rehabilitating. As the months pass, their condition deteriorates. Sometimes I hear them during the day but never at night. Not screaming. They heehaw in broken call-and-response formations. I watch them clip-clop up the street but the rhythm is off-kilter, limping. It is getting to winter and the grass is brown. The donkeys are thinner yet. I can see their ribs, the knots of the spines that ridge their backs. They stand listless. Sometimes they are so still, I think they are statutes, art works depicting donkey, donkeys shrunken and swollen in the wrong places, corrupted by a surrealist lens.
The road to the township is steep. The town is in a valley with hills that rise up around it. There is a drought in the area and the landscape is dry, low scrubs sunk between rocky outcrops. The houses shrink, become tin shacks, makeshift cement structures. The road is broken, potholed and sunken in. The going is slow. I gear down to first and crawl behind the donkey cart. The cars build up but there is nothing to be done. The donkeys strain against the weight of the load, the rise of the incline. The driver uses his whip, but the blows make no impact. Perhaps the weight of the cart is simply too much, too heavy. Or maybe their flayed hides no longer feel the whip, its blows; the donkeys no longer able to distinguish its specific pain from the infinite gradation of their suffering—by lash, by fear, by hunger.
After a while I stop seeing them. The cart vanishes from the streets. I no longer hear the heehaw orchestra. I think the donkeys have gone. They are dead or moved on. Then one night a donkey’s scream wakes me, invades my sleep, my body. It is too cold to get up but still I force myself, peel off the covers and walk to the window. Press my face against the iced glass sheet. The street is silver in the moonlight. I see shapes but I don’t know if they are donkeys or shadows, simply tricks of the light. I go back to bed and curl my body, pull the sheets tight but struggle to sleep. My ears won’t release me. They are honed. Pricked towards every sound like they want to hear the scream again. Like they are hungry for it. Something in the tone…almost erotic in its intensity…
I want to capture it. To somehow play the sound back so I can hear it again in the morning, in bright light. I try to imagine an instrument that might replicate it. A wind instrument like a saxophone except you squeeze instead of blowing. The body is a sac with withered limbs, a bloated belly. The neck is sinewy, lean and ungainly. The instrument is leaning, its head bent as if searching for gratification, as if eternally hungry. I imagine to squeeze it takes great effort. You have to clasp it in your arms and exert pressure. The instrument is swollen but the valve in the mouth piece is too tight to release the air inside. It takes everything, your muscles pushed to the threshold of exhaustion. Slowly, slowly. The sac shifts and throbs, its surface strains. You must extract the sound from the depths of yourself, like spit, like blood. It is the sound of failed effort, the body pushed beyond its threshold, past capacity, pushing with anything. A terrible exhaustion. A final gasp. And even then failing to achieve anything beyond a low tremor.
I promise myself in the morning I will sketch the thing. I will draw a picture that captures the instrument and the pain it induces. I phone my friend Victor who designs his own musical instruments. It is a dying practice. Victor is from Angola. He tells me how as a child he would wake to the sound of someone—a man, a South African exile probably—playing the saxophone from the top of the building that housed the ANC office in Luanda. He describes the sky over Luanda, early morning, a dim purple-blue littered with faded stars. He describes the sound as a cry, a scream…He starts to describe it then stops, starts again. He says no matter how often I listened, the beauty of it remained closed, indecipherable.
He wants to grasp it. How it is composed, the notes that made up the composition. Victor is like that. His instruments are very precise. He is an engineer by training. He studied at university in Angola under the socialist government. I imagine his lecturer was Russian. He gave up engineering to pursue music. He blames the South African saxophonist, the music that woke him, too many mornings, that still wakes him, stays with him.
Victor follows the sound to the rural areas. To listen and understand…not to understand, but to hear, the creaking trees and rushing wind. The music of the sky and the hum of the desert come to him as aching minor sonorities, as appoggiaturas, chords and quavers, counterpoint. Refusing the Western canon, he starts to make his own music. He invents a new scale built from atoms that are constantly moving. He builds instruments to suit it. They look like plants and animals, sea creatures. Like ancient bowls made of precious metals. They sound like wind and sand and water, like azure clouds dissolving amid auras in the sky over Luanda. He used his engineering training to solder them together. He tightens valves and oils pans. He designs a drum that carries the impact of a tiger’s coiled paws, its claws retracted but ready, taunt. He makes a breathing orchestra with one instrument, tuned slightly higher, as the inhale, the exhale tuned slightly lower, like a note from a baritone saxophone as the wind blasts it. He tells me that when the instrument breathes, when the inhale and the exhale are combined, a beating erupts. He lifts his hands to demonstrate.
I want to take them—his hands—to catch them mid-motion and to still them. We are in his hotel. It is early morning and his plane is leaving soon. We are both tired, overtired, drunk from the long night of words and music, exchanging fragmented histories. Finally, he stands, pushes open the curtain to the right and left, flooding the room with early morning light. The soft sun touches both of our bodies. The digital alarm clock next to the bed reads 8:30 am. He starts to pack. I watch him fold button-up shirts and black jeans. I want him to stop, to stay. To tell me the story about the saxophonist again. To conjure the morning sky over Luanda. To hum the tune he heard—no instruments, just his voice, the vibrations of his throat. It is not possible. His life is elsewhere. A family in Angola. A wife and children in Portugal. His work demands he must travel. His ears have already moved, the music is always far away, towards the horizon, somewhere off in the distance.
He sends me a picture documenting a project he is working on. It is an audio project but based in research. He is dragging a stick through the desert looking for radioactive material left over from weapons testing. The research is dangerous. It is tied up in cold war secrets, nuclear collaborations between western powers and African states. Victor tells me the wind in the desert is constant. The heat is torrid. The silence fills everything, a sound like the drone of a thousand insects. He tells me that over the course of his research, the sun has burned his face. His shoulders, stained by the salt wind and sand. His hands too have undergone changes. The lines of his palms have gained a clarity, like geographic markings. His fingers have lengthened. He designs a new instrument to suit them, a thing with many strings. A top resonator made out of a gourd and a black carbon dome as an anchor. He sends me a link to a video clip and I watch him play it, seated, his head bent forward, body rocking to the vibrations—a soft tone, clear and transparent. I follow his fingers as they dance through the strings and think of the distances, the kilometres that separate us.
He writes again a year later. He is far away, following the journey of a South African naval vessel involved in nuclear testing in the late 1970s. He describes the Antarctic to me. The icebergs are glass dunes. The sea is a black mirror. He tells me how the cold burns his skin. How it grows red around the corners. He says, my hands are cold too, they are becoming heavy. He is recording sounds for a new project, the water lapping the boat and ice cracking, a noise like a long-drawn-out thunder, moving further and further off. He describes the light as an infinitude of nuance. He says he wants to record it as a slight glissando between notes when bowing his dino.
His voice over the phone sounds far away. Wind swept. It takes him forever to answer. When he finally picks up, the line is bad. I try to tell him about my life, the new town I am living in, about my idea for an instrument from the donkeys—the sound they make, a cry of pain, a hunger that is close to sadness. I say, like a donkey screaming but I don’t know if her hears me. I say it again. A donkey. DONKEY. He says nothing for a long time then his voice comes back. He tells me a story. A road trip in the desert. He doesn’t say which desert—the Namib, the Sahara, the Gobi, the Kalahari, the Mojave, the Sands of Sorrows, the Seas of Dust, the Wastes of Longing—it could be any of these. Victor is always travelling. He describes a road that runs through a barren landscape. How straight it is. Straight and endless. The flatness of the site. The horizon is a vast line wavering in the heat. He describes the loneliness of the journey. The hours, days with no one to talk to. He says, near the end I came upon a donkey. It must have been hit by a car or a truck but hadn’t died yet. It was wandering along, bleeding. Blood soaked its fur from its hindquarters to its neck, staining it. He tells me there was nothing he could do. He had no water to give it, nothing. The donkey zigzagged forward along the road as it bled. Victor followed in his car, at a distance. About half a kilometre later, he tells me, the donkey dropped.
I don’t get to hear the end of the story. I don’t know what happened to the donkey. If Victor saved it. If that was even possible given the circumstances. The line goes dead. I say hello hello and hear my voice echo. I hang up, try to phone back but it just rings and rings. Later I get the engaged signal, a low hollow tone. I stand holding the phone at my ear, listen to the beeps much longer than is necessary.
That night the silence is bigger than the silence on the phone. Everything is suspended: the only thing to be heard is a tap dripping, the sound of a car engine somewhere far away. I think of Victor in the desert with the donkey. I can see the horizon. I don’t know what has become of his car. Victor is walking, following the donkey. Its blood leaves dark stains in the sand. It is an aerial shot. The landscape sways. There is no vegetation, just sand and rocks the size of babies’ skulls. Victor and the donkey walk, one after the other. Their feet make wide circles that radiate outward. I am waiting for the donkey to drop. For its legs to give but it doesn’t happen that way. Victor drops and the donkey keeps walking. It takes me a moment to understand what is happening. Victor and the donkey are walking. Then it is just the donkey. At the same instant: a darkness in the air, not completely dark yet but dark enough. I have to backtrack, return to see Victor’s slumped body. The donkey is off in the distance. Silhouetted against the twilight, nothing but a black dot. I feel my heart accelerate. I try to call Victor’s name but the wind eats my words, blows them back to me. I start to run but my legs sink. I take long steps, stumbling forward as long as I can. I stop, breathless, blink against the sweat burning my eyes, my blood beating at my temples.
I am close now and I slow down, push my hair out my face and squint. But the mound is in front of me is too big to be a human figure—it is a large, dark heap. As I approach I can feel the warmth rising. I reach out and touch it and feel fur and draw back quick—my hand, as if stung, but also my body.
It is the donkey. Dead, or seems to be. Even close to it, even touching it, I have a hard time making it out clearly. Is it possible? Can it be I mistaken things earlier? That in the heat of the moment, the confusion of the events and elements, what I thought was Victor dropping was really the donkey? And if so, does that mean Victor is still out there, walking, somewhere wandering the desert? For a moment I hesitate, wanting to understand what is happening, to give it a logical explanation. I turn around and look behind me. I call Victor’s name into the darkness. It is essential I find him. I do not know where I am or how I came to be here. Not even which desert I’m in, its name or geography. Which country. My mouth is dry and my muscles ache. As I begin to walk the thirst grows in me.
The desert is different during the day to at night. The boundary between sky and earth becomes diffuse and continuous. Soon, all that remains of the landscape is a thin charcoal outline. The blackness sifts down to the ground, forming ash dunes. The ash cloaks everything. The stars whirl above me. Sand moves soundlessly under my footfalls. The silence is terrible. Just my breath, inhaling and exhaling, the sound of the air leaving, my heart beating. A silence loud with the natural sounds that conceal it.