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Through the bars on the tall, uncurtained windows the garden looked invitingly cool, syringa trees providing a shifting shade that the women and children chased with their blankets on the kikuyu grass. Inside, the room smelled of sour milk, butternut squash and diapers. Tattered posters of zebra, wildebeest, lions and springbok littered the whitewashed walls; cardboard boxes overflowed with building blocks, dolls with no clothes or hair, chewed rubber rings, and toy telephones with broken dials or missing receivers.
The baby girl turned her head away from the approaching teaspoon of pap and got an earful of it instead.
"She's one of our sicker little angels," explained Big Jane, who had agreed to my interviewing her for South Africa's National Broadcasting Corporation radio news. She wiped away the porridge with a damp cloth. "If you come next month, she might not be here."
Shrieks of laughter floated in from the garden, where the other angels of the Soweto Home for Orphans had piled onto one of the helpers. I wondered how many of them would be gone, too. Most of them were three years old or younger, but there was one little boy of five who, long. Although the name on the wooden plaque outside didn't indicate it, this was a place of refuge for children with AIDS, a place where they lived out the rest of their livesoften only a few months, because, as Big Jane explained to me, the disease moved quicker through tiny bodies than adult ones.
She lifted the baby girl out of her high chair and slid the infant over one broad shoulder and onto her back. Then, hunching forward, she wrapped a plaid blanket around them both, tucked the end in over her enormous bosom and securedit with a large safety pin.
"Thula baba. Be quiet, baby," she cooed, as the baby started to whimper.
As I followed Big Jane outside, I noticed that she wore her penny loafers as though they were backless, flattening the brown leather under her broad feet. The calluses on her heels had split open, and I could tell from the raw pink patches that she'd been peeling them like onions.
"Sies."Yuck, she told a little boy of about three, taking away the garden snail he was about to put into his mouth.
His bottom lip began to quiver, but then she hauled him up under his arms and his face brightened, as though he knew what was coming.
"Fly, my little one," she said, spinning around slowly. The baby on her back stopped whimpering, and after about four turns she deposited the little boy onto his feet. He staggered like a drunkard, giggling and begging for more.
The top half of his left ear was a crimped ripple of pinched skin, a pink seashell against his dark brown complexion.
"His mother abandoned him in the veld when he was two days old, and the rats got to him," explained Big Jane, noticing that I was staring.
"Why would she do that?"
"Probably because she knew she didn't have long to live herself. And if her family had shunned her, why would they take in a child with AIDS?"
I could not answer, could not make any comment on something I understood so little. Yes, I'd seen the glossy news magazines with their maps and percentages, Sub-Saharan Africa colored deep red to indicate its status as the disease's hot spot, with seventy percent of the world's cases. I'd studied the specifics for South Africa: 250,000 people died each year from AIDS, and 420,000 children had been orphaned. I knew the dire projections for the impact AIDS was going to have on the underfunded health system, as well as the entire economy of the country. But I'd never seen the disease up close, seen its too bright eyes, its feverish brow, its thin wrists and overfull diapers.
Being with Big Jane and her group of five women volunteers made me feel selfish, as if I were breathing oxygen I didn't deserve.
"Why do you do it?" I asked her.
She untied and then retied the floral scarf she wore on her head, all the while looking at me as though this were a strange question, one she'd never thought of before.
"I don't want God's little angels to be frightened and get lost on their way to heaven," she said finally. Seeing the confusion on my face, she continued, "So I hold their hands and love them, and they fly right up with no trouble."
She picked up the little boy and kissed his ragged ear. Grinning broadly, he nuzzled his head against her shoulder.
I began to feel an unnerving envy of this woman and her quiet conviction. She allowed herself to love these children even though they would be taken from her. I never allowed myself to be vulnerable, which was clearly why I felt such an affinity for my profession as a journalist. Wrapped up in my cocoon of objectivity, I lived a perfectly insular life, one that made me fairly contentor so I'd thought.
The love Big Jane talked about could be seen in her eyes, in her fingers as she stroked the children's hair while she talked, in the turn of her head every time a child cried. I loved my boyfriend, Anton, but the depth of my feelings for him didn't come close to this. I loved that he made me laugh with his droll observations of life, that he knew when to back away and allow me to let off steam, that he always called to check that I'd made it home safely. Like secret agents we always reported our movements to each other. "Yes, Mr. X, I've reached the site." I couldn't go to sleep at night if he didn't call to let me know he was home and hadn't been attacked getting out to open his garage door in the dark. But I never looked at him the way Big Jane looked at this little boy.
"How do you endure the heartbreak?" I asked her. "And the physical demands of caring for such ill children?" Surely the ebb and flow of life in this home would tax even the strongest love.
Big Jane did not hesitate. "This is what the Lord wants me to do, and so He gives me the strength to do it."
I hadn't thought of the Lord for a long time, not since my brother died and my father "withdrew" our faith. That's how he'd put it: withdrew our faith, as though we were entered in a team triathlon and had to retire due to injury.
He'd never been happy with me attending my mother's Afrikaans church, even though he'd agreed they would raise any children they might have in her faith. A devout Catholic he was not, but it was the way in which his father-in-law had decreed that he marry my mother in their church or not at all that had rankled him.
My mother didn't argue with my father. We just kept going to church, albeit under the pretense of visiting Luca's grave. But then the pills started to make Mom act strangely, and after a while we really did end up at Luca's grave on Sunday mornings. Instead of being in our usual pew at the Kerk van die Goeie Herder, the Church of the Good Shepherd, we'd lie on the grass next to Luca, sipping diet cola, eating licorice, "keeping him company," as my mother called it.
In the years since, I hadn't become an atheist, but I hadn't given any thought to spiritual matters, either. Life had become a journey, yet there was no map, no route markers, merely a meandering road and a number of stops along the way that served as pleasant distractions from a horizon with no destination in sight. This was not Big Jane's life. Hers had purpose. I believed that my radio reports were useful to the public, yet if I fell off the face of the earth that very afternoon, Taryn or Mike or Frik or any one of my colleagues could take up where I'd left off without any trouble. But if the same were to happen to Big Jane, who would step in to take her place? Who would care for her little sick angels without worrying about the personal risk?
Despite the cloud of gloom that had settled over me, I had to continue the interview. "And how do you afford to keep this place going?" I asked.
"We get a small stipend from the government, and the rest just appears."
"People give me cash, people I've never seen before in my life. Brown people, black people, white people, yellow people. They just appear at the door with an envelope or plastic bag."
She shook her head before I'd even finished the question. "Never. People are too afraid."
The butternut squash was ready, and the other women had moved the children inside. Those children who could sat on the floor, feeding themselves the orange puree sprinkled with brown sugar; the babies sat in high chairs, and the women moved between them, filling the little mouths from the same plate with the same teaspoon.
Big Jane unwrapped the little girl from her back and returned her to the high chair, but still she would not eat. Her eyes were wet, but there were no tears on her cheeks. All of a sudden, without any change of expression, she vomited a pink pool of blood and milk onto the tray before her.
"It's okay, baby, it's okay," murmured Big Jane, stroking her head. Then she began wiping up the mess.
I watched the cloth become squelchy in her ungloved hands and stepped back, afraid for myself, afraid for her and ashamed of my fear.
I had enough of Big Jane on tape as well as an interview with one of the other women, and I'd recorded the sounds of the children at play as well as the song they'd sung for me when I'd arrived.
"Maybe you'll get more donations after people hear my report on the radio," I told Big Jane, as she was seeing me off.
It sounded patronizing, and I wondered if it was because I felt guilty about having climbed into my car without shaking her hand.
She shrugged. "The Lord provides. Drive carefully now and watch out for the ditsotsi. The bad men."
I locked the doors and pushed my tape recorder and handbag under the passenger seat. No need to place temptation in full view, although it took less than that for criminals to stop you nowadays.
This was only the second time I'd been to Soweto. A white photographer had been killed in an ambush there just before the first democratic elections in the country in 1994, and for a couple of years after that editors had sent only black journalists into the townships. White journalists were grateful. Our fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color was stronger than our desire to get to the news.
I had only gone to Soweto that first time because my black colleagues were out of the country covering an Organization of African Unity summit. A strip mall was being opened in the township, and the paucity of existing business in the area had made it big news. What had made my four-minute piece so powerful was the uninhibited, infectious joy expressed by women who no longer had to catch two buses into downtown Johannesburg to buy a bolt of fabric or a new pap pot.
To whites, Soweto had always been the wrong turn you didn't want to take. When television arrived in the country in 1975, the images beamed into our homes from this hotbed of dissent shook the orderly existence of the sheltered white suburbs. Who could forget the infamous necklacea petrol-filled tire placed over the head of an alleged police spy and then ignited by the baying mob?
Soweto is a sprawling dormitory town, built to house Johannesburg's black workers, who until 1991 were forbidden by law from living in white areas. Every morning, trains and minibus taxispacked way beyond legal capacitytransport its residents to their places of work. The ones who remain are the unemployed and those who scratch out a living for themselves, selling fruit, cigarettes and liquor, repairing radios and bicycles, straightening hair.
White journalists have started going back in; still, some opt not to. In the past it was because of political unrest; now it's because criminals have a stranglehold on the township. Carjackers are so brazen in Soweto, they knock on the front doors of their victims' houses to demand the car keys. It's like the rest of the country now, only seen through a magnifying glass with the full glare of the sun behind you.
At a red light, I took the cassette out of the recorder and inserted it into the car's tape player. There was no news angle, so I didn't have to hurry to get it ready for the evening news and actuality program. I could take my time, maybe make the report a bit longer than usual.
The roads were busier than when I'd arrived midmorning, and I had difficulty locating signs to tell me I was retracing my exact route. Nothing looked familiar. I felt a flutter of panic. All I needed was to get lost. But then the truck blocking my view in front pulled off the road, and I was relieved to see the gas station I'd used as a landmark this morning.
The light at the entrance to the highway stayed red for so long I considered flooring the accelerator. I didn't though, because it was still daylight, and a cop wouldn't be as lenient as he might if it were late at night, when this was common practice. The bridge shuddered as cars flashed by down below, skipping in and out of lanes, racing each other to the next exit, a thick, shimmering tapeworm of crowded steel that had left Johannesburg empty, like a great big shin bone sucked dry of marrow.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel; the children on the tape gurgled and chattered. The doors were all locked, the car was in gear, my foot revved the accelerator. There was not a soul around. Suddenly, a head popped up next to my window. I heard myself scream and felt a short, sharp pain in my chest, as though I'd been stabbed with a knitting needle. I went hot, then cold. My scalp prickled with sweat.
"Get out of the car, white scum!" he said, aiming a silver gun right between my eyes.
Guns had always been present in my life, stashed in glove compartments, locked in safes, under the cushions of the sofa, tan leather holsters peeping out the bottom of trouser legs. I knew they were there, but, like edge trimmers, I'd never had a call for them. They were objects on the periphery of my life: necessary, convenient, just not something I ever used.
"I said, get out!"
As he motioned for me to open the door, the spine of his gun caught the glare of the late afternoon sun, blinding me with its flash, making him disappear from before my eyes. Could this be a dream? No. The milky haze shifted and he was still there, blue black, beads of sweat trickling down the shiny dome of his shaved head and disappearing in rivulets behind the mirrored sunglasses.
"Now, not tomorrow!" He looked about thirtyish, but his voice was high-pitched, unsteady, adolescent.
Why couldn't I move? My brain sent signals telling my legs to swing out of the car and plant themselves on the road, but my hands were locked so tightly on the steering wheel I felt a spasm in my shoulders. A woolly numbness began to fill my head, and I realized I was holding my breath.
He took off his sunglasses and wiped his sleeve across his forehead, leaving a slick dark stain on the turquoise silk. The whites of his coal-black eyes were tinged with yellow.
A strange, frantic whining grew loud in my ears, the sound of an impala caught in the metal teeth of a poacher's trap.
"Shut up!" screamed the man.
Then I realized it was me making the hideous noise. I slouched farther into the driver's seat, trying to put as much distance between the gun and myself as possible, and burrowed my chin into my chest so I didn't have to look at my reflection anymore. The pinkness of his nails turned chalky as he tightened his grip on the pearly handle of the gun.
Crack! The only gunfire I'd heard before had been in the distance. I felt my mouth snap shut, and the whining stopped. I tensed, anticipating pain. Crack!
He's shot me again, I thought.
I patted my chest and stomach, frantically searching for the stickiness, the damp patch on my crisp white linen blouse.
Crack, crack, crack!
He wasn't stopping. He really wanted to kill me. I looked up into his face, hoping he would stop when he saw the fear in my eyes.
"Not yet, baby," he said, smirking. "I haven't shot you, yet."
Crack, crack, crack! He rapped the snub nose of the gun against the window, then threw back his head and almost choked on loud, guttural laughter. Quickly, I put my hand on the keys to restart my stalled car, wincing as they clinked against each other. But he didn't seem shaking with laughter. I turned the key. The car strained to life, jolted forward and died again.
Suddenly, there was a crash and a shower of glass onto my lap. Cool metal jabbed my cheek.
He screamed a curse at me, his index finger shaking on the trigger. Then he leaned closer, stroking my cheek with the spine of the gun, his voice becoming a reedy purr. "If the car's in gear, you have to keep your foot on the clutch." He pressed his lips to my ear and shouted, "Now, get out or I will shoot you!"
Still I sat staring danger stupidly in the face. His eyes darted left, right, right, left. Little rodent eyes. He opened the door, grabbed my forearm and pulled me from my seat. With a dull, crunching thud, I fell face first onto the road.