Fall on your feet
When I was living in Toronto, I learnt why the Canadians call it fall. It’s not because of the leaves that descend; instead, it’s the invisible fire in the sky.
My sense is that it’s always there, the fire. I imagine it gaining in strength during the summer months, lapping up the heat that radiates from the city’s sidewalks and skyscrapers. And in autumn, its hearth heavy, this airborne inferno descends, hitting the trees first.
Some leaves it slow roasts a gentle golden brown, as if in perfect obedience of a recipe’s instructions. Some it sears the colour of beef carpaccio. Others it deliberately burns, showing the force of its flames, singeing the leaves a deep maroon, their edges crisp and black.
Unlike Canada, where the fire rages for a full season, autumn in South Africa is brief. Now – late April, early May – is its peak and Joburg’s famously tree-lined streets offer short-lived glimpses of the fire’s damage. For the last couple of weeks, it’s leafy victims have been skittering at my running feet.
All of this is to say that I’ve been thinking about fires and about falling. And I’ve been thinking about feet.
I called him a week ago, a Saturday, early morning. “What a perfect day for a gathering,” I said, all excitement.
“It is,” he replied, his smile on the other side strangely forced. “I was up early putting my birds in the trees. The wooden ones I made a few weeks back? They’re done, and I wanted to hang them up before everyone arrives this afternoon. I got them up, but as I was coming down . . . Well, my dismount was less than graceful. I mean, I suppose it was always bound to happen, knowing me.”
A broken branch and his weight, from great height, on one foot. Fortunately, neither broken nor fractured, but badly sprained. Tissue and ligaments and tendons shocked into inflammation. Swollen so that it seems to be made of pulp rather than bones, its base blackblueblackpurple, beneath the toes too.
Since Alek’s fall, I’ve been fussing. It’s born of care and affection and love, but also of empathy. The first incarnation of this website, I’ve said before, was born of a broken foot. I packed up my life in late 2011, resigning my job and cancelling everything, including (something I would later regret) my local medical insurance, thinking that I would travel for a year. My half-formed plan included six months in South America followed by six months in Canada. But just seven weeks in, on Christmas Eve, I clambered into the top of a set of bunk beds in a small hostel in El Calafate in southern Argentina, lost my balance and found myself the similar subject of a less-than-graceful dismount. In my case, my foot was broken and my travels quickly truncated.
The experience taught me the acerbic taste of disappointment, like pencil shavings on the tongue. And also about the random kindness of strangers – I’ve never forgotten Guillermo, who barely knew me at all, and who spent hours with me at the hospital, translating diagnoses and prognoses and placating my panic – and the endless support of family and friends. I learnt about the profound humility involved in asking for help – with everything. Transport. Bathing. Meal-making. Even worse: tea-making. The fatigue of carrying my body from one place to the next on two hands that would have developed crutch-induced callouses were it not for the sheepskin covers on the handles and the fact that this experience was only temporary, a few months in total.
I learnt about the incredible arrogance and ignorance of the ordinarily able-bodied.
And so I’ve been fussing because I’ve been there. And because I’ve experienced my own sense of immobility over the past few weeks: an inability to be creative because of the financial fretting of freelance (especially in a month riddled by public holidays; April, I couldn’t be happier to see the back of you).
A month of falls. Infernos in the sky, bodies from trees, creative ambitions; leaves burnt, feet bruised, self-belief bumped. But feet heal, financial insecurities are calmed and, inevitably, fingertips are drawn back to the keyboard. We land on our feet eventually.