Nkuku by Gaele Sobott
Leah rolls through the valley of ghouls, where she is an anxious slave to the economic order. She has found the courage to take time off work, by pretending to be sick. She travels upwards to the house of her grandmother.
Nkuku bakes life wide open. Pumpkin scones combat fear of owls, vegetable pasties attract new friends. An aroma of fireworks and malt impregnates the kitchen of brown-earth tiles. Leah notices two crusty loaves of seed bread on the cooling rack.
Nkuku, she shouts, but no answer.
In the bedroom, she trails her fingers over the nubs and bumps of mountain-spun cloth that covers her grandmother’s bed; the reds, purples and gold of a fiery sunset.
Nkuku, she shouts again.
The bathroom is dark. Only a small window opens to the light. The ceiling, walls and floor are blue, the sea fallen from the sky. Leah smells the throaty depths of an ocean and thinks she hears distant waves crashing on a beach.
Nkuku. She stretches each syllable of the word to the point where it may snap. Her voice echoes through the craggy peaks. An ancient pomegranate tree at the side of the small stone house leans towards her. The leaves rustle and whisper, You risk losing your tongue if you throw it to the mountain ghosts like that. Leah smiles. These are her grandmother’s words.
Nkuku. Leah tethers her voice so it does not fly away.
Three bees pencil circles around the crimson fruit. Leah manoeuvres one of the pomegranates from its branch, tapping the tight rind with her knuckles. Its heart resonates.
Nkuku, she whispers, wheeling her chair over stones towards the garden at the back where her grandmother’s orchids grow in the crevices of a rocky outcrop, in the moss below, masses of intertwined roots twittering like small birds; green penile air roots, snakelike, seeking, penetrating.
Nkuku, she sighs.
Her grandmother lies naked, small. Her face is golden as the rising moon. Roots and thick leaves sway, long stems rise from her skin, a multitude of white orchids bloom.
The moist earth gently churns, taking the old woman below the surface where she will decompose.
Leah is the only mourner at this burial without song. For every teardrop that falls many more orchids appear, brushing against her ankles, her calves, spreading towards the house. A strong scent of cinnamon with undertones of decay saturates the night.
Clothed in deep sorrow, Leah will leave before first light.
She eats the bread in her grandmother’s kitchen,
knowing the ingredients will help her resist the suffocating demands of the valley,
knowing each mouthful is an ode to the flesh we have left,
knowing that the greatest creators are the dead.
Gaele Sobott lives on Darug land, Western Sydney, Australia. Her published books include Colour Me Blue (Heinemann), My Longest Round (Magabala Books). Her short stories and poems are published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia and overseas, and her animated poems have received international awards. Gaele received a 2020 City of Sydney artist fellowship, 2021 Varuna Writers Space fellowship and was shortlisted for the 2021 Queensland Poetry Awards Emerging Older Poets Mentorship. She is the founding director of Outlandish Arts, a disabled-led, not-for-profit arts organisation.
She has a PhD in literature from the University of Hull, England.