I'm standing in a field in Italy.
A hot summer's day.
Crows. Tractors.
Poplars lining a river.
Clods and stubble at my feet.

The trees are as in his diary.
The gravel farm road.
The narrow canals.
The soft quick plop of frogs
arrowing into a ditch.

I'm standing near Venice
with people in a field.
The sky is cloudless,
as blue as Giotto's
frescoed inside a dome.

A painter's skies.
Spacious. Visionary.
Opening above the plains,
the mountains of a Europe
for once at peace.

I'm standing in a field in Italy
trying to grasp what's happening.
The heat off the soil
beats into my face as at home.
A taxi is parked in the trees.

Go to the gaps for the poem.
The words throb in my thoughts.
Like a mantra. A headache.
The hook of a song
I cannot quieten. Or end.

The people around me
are talking in blurs.
They look confused.
The snapshot they hold
no longer matches the field.

2

Their language whirls past me.
My thoughts unfold.
I've come from South Africa
with wife and children
as pilgrims to this field.

We're here to give thanks.
Thanks to a family
who'd sheltered my father
for two years of a war,
risking a bullet in the head.

I want our son and daughter
to meet their young.
To see the field he slept in.
The ruin that housed them.
The pigsty where he hid.

Ma tanti anni fa, sai.
Signora Ferro's beside me.
The barn was here, she says.
Or maybe closer to the trees.
It's all so long ago.

My Italian is rough and slow.
Her dialect's a rapid.
Our talk leads to guesses.
Confusion. Laughter.
Scraps of knowing. Then gaps.

3

I look across her shoulder
and see him. My father.
Hiding all night in the reeds.
His jacket's wet sacking,
his shirt a damp shroud.

He lies curled up on his side
and breathes in the cap
pulled over his face.
Only his breath is warm.
His will to survive is the fire.

There are soldiers with dogs
billeted in the farmhouse
a hundred steps from the reeds.
Informers on bicycles.
Manhunts at dawn.

He's slept in rain for a month.
A vagabond. A scavenger.
A soldier with a cause
chest-deep and sinking
in the dark abysmal bog of war.

He trusts no one.
He thinks like a spy on the run.
Where will I hide myself next?
What can I eat?
Who will betray me? When?

He thinks of his parents.
He yearns for his friends.
The young war-bride
waving, waving on the pier
who is my mother.

She that night is also on guard.
Hunched in a bunker
above Port Elizabeth's bay.
Scanning the sea in a screen
for blips of submarines.

The army has written.
He's missing. Thought dead.
The handsome young soldier
to her a wound. A void.
Beneath a southern Orion.

I see her in her headphones
grieving, longing,
each time I drive that road
and glimpse through dune-bush
that wan grey remnant of war.

He blows alive in his thoughts
small coals of hope
then hears across the field
the croak of sepulchral crows.
Despair seeps back like mist.

4

His diary's factual. Laconic.
I sense his moods in the gaps.
He hides its tracks of a self,
its spoor of an epoch
in holes he digs in the field.

He writes of food and rain.
Of prisoners found on a farm,
instructed to watch
the family who hid them
shot in front of their barn.

Haggard, fugitive prisoners.
South Africans like him
sent running in a field
a stubble of maize.
Shot in the back as they ran.

A family has offered him help.
Signora Ferro's.
Her grandfather's a foreman,
deep-eyed, unlettered.
Fear kwashiorkors their sleep.

They room in an outhouse,
with cattle, rats and birds.
They eat polenta and beans.
The pigs and they eat water
when there's no food.

My father wants their food,
their warning whispers.
They want him invisible.
He hides in haystacks. Reeds.
With pigs in a sty.

I look again in the reeds.
He's crouched on his heels,
squeezing his hands.
The cap's back on his head.
He looks so thin, so cold.

I've come to this field in Italy
in search of this presence.
This shade. My father's.
The soldier, cricketer, hero
who died when I was four.

The man in a wide lapel suit,
his hat at a jaunty angle,
a suitcase packed for hospital
waving in the doorway
at the end of the passage at home.

Smiling and waving, waving
to me at infancy's end,
sitting with a wind-up truck,
toy soldiers and cattle
on a strip of brown linoleum.

Numbed by a child's intuition
that something unspeakable
was happening to the adults.
To us. To him. A felt absence.
A gap, among the rest.

5

The memory shallows. Fades.
I hear Signora Ferro talking,
far off, in swirls of words.
Stocky. Black-haired. Resolute.
A handbag over one arm.

The talking slows. Boils on.
I feel again at a distance,
apprehensive. Lost.
Bahlala beshiyana abantu,
I hear in my thoughts.

People keep leaving each other,
the words in isiZulu put it.
Humans keep missing others.
Dangling raw ends.
Loneliness. Suspicion. Gaps.

We walk on into the field.
It twists our thin-soled shoes.
I look down at the clods
and think of the blood
anointing Europe's fields.

Ten million people dead,
the first world war. Or twelve.
Forty million, the second.
Or is it sixty? Who knows.
Can stop to count, or care.

Numbers, numbers, I think.
Their calm precision. Their penury.
Impoverishing feelings.
Distancing air-raids, mine-fields.
Ghosting the horror. The dead.

Signora Ferro looks dismayed.
The trees and canals are there,
the gaunt padrone's house.
But outhouse, threshing yard,
pig-sties are gone. Are gaps.

6

I look away across the river.
Field after field of maize.
Head-high, tasselled and green.
Like rank on rank of soldiers
in oblongs and squares.

Like soldiers on the march.
Neanderthals. Etruscans.
Romans. Vandals. Huns.
Occupying the passes,
invading villages and plains.

They tramp on into the present.
Not far from the field
armies from Russia and America
are camped in Bosnian woods,
policing ferocious tribes.

I stumble over the clods.
The disc-plough's compressed
one side of their chunks.
It gleams dully. Like leather,
or bronze or toughened steel.

Like the helmets of soldiers
half-buried in the soil.
The clods' other side is irregular.
Like faces smashed off
in personal holocausts of lead.

I look up from my feet.
The clods are thick in the fields
that stretch across the plains
beyond the crinkle of the Alps,
to Auschwitz, the Somme.

Above them, amplitudes of sky.
Tranquillity like a reprimand.
A silent reproach.
To people at war, to armies
slaughtering under the dome.

7

I murmur to my wife:
the earth's small canopy of air,
the vacuum dark beyond.
The sky is bluer, she says
than skies at home.

The comment sticks,
unties a cluster of fears.
My thoughts again lurch
on gaps, on the rifts
between the people at home.

Their hungers, animosities,
smouldering prejudice.
The retrovirus of violence
clubbing a head to a pulp
in farmhouse, subway, shebeen.

The children tug at my arm.
What's happening? they ask.
I've read them the diary,
shown them the bunker,
the canal he swam at night.

They've played with their peers.
Football. Water-pistols.
The story's entered their lives.
But now they are restless.
Looking for openings. Fun.

8

Signora asks if we're ready
then takes me by the arm.
Gaps are loosening edges,
are closing. For now.
I shut my eyes and see him.

My father. Standing in the reeds.
Hands in armpits, waiting.
I sense he is with me, of me
much more than before.
I am ready. To see him home.

I open my eyes. To sunlight.
Trees. Families in a field.
Across the hot furrows
irrigation sprays are clattering,
lifting bright water in the air,

showering fresh sprigs of green.
The families turn.
We hug. Slowly. One by one.
Then walk in silence to the taxi
across the ploughed field.

 

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