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SOEKMEKAAR, LOOKING FOR ONE ANOTHER
e Newly six, I lay in the dark listening to the rattle of my shutters. The moon was gone from them.
Something moved in the passage outside my door. My heart banged up into my throat. I strained to listen, tried to be still. I must have called out. I felt warm fingers close my eyes. My father’s hands smelled of long hours and antiseptic soap. “It’s nearly midnight, Lizzy,” he said, in the hope I would finally submit to sleep in my Johannesburg bed. In the dim light, I saw he was still in his creased shirtsleeves rolled up from the day, but without his polished brown shoes. Usually at night, he left them by the front door. He must have had to go out again after we fell asleep, on another call, someone sick on a farm at Fourways, maybe, or further out at Honeydew, a child bitten by a snake, someone trying to be born, someone stabbed. Newly qualified as a doctor, he was not yet thirty, with dark rims beneath his eyes.
“Is Mommy still in her bed?” I whispered.
“She’s in her bed.”
He closed my eyes again and turned to go. Still no moon.
“Tell of the wild dogs,” I said.
He sat down around the middle of the bed where my feet ended under the blanket, and rested his head on his hands. He began rubbing his fingers against his scalp through his short-cut dark brown hair, slowly, like medicine for his head. “He loved the wild dogs,” he began. “His black eyes, like newly lit coals, glowed within the small, flat plane of his features. He had never seen the face from which he peered, Elizabeth, never caught sight of the fire within him.” He was the first, he said, the first to walk the African veld we now called our own.
The moon had not returned. In its place it had left only relentless night. Like the moon, I drifted away. It was the first of May, 1963, with the whipping dust of early winter already taunting the bleak Transvaal highveld with the promise of more drought. Evenings were starting to prick with cold. Veld grass blew flame-ready in dry whispers. Miles deep, men tunneled, dreaming of the beauty of the sky. Crickets kept the night awake, and outside, the city of gold lay quiet.
It must have been Salamina who lifted me in the dead of night from my sheets, her strong, brown Xhosa hands paper-dry from cleaning and washing. It must have been Salamina who wrapped my sleeping limbs tight within a musty blanket and heaved me, limp with dreams, up over her pregnant belly.
She must have carried me silently down the slate passage, through the kitchen door out to the waiting car, its headlights on, its hot breath steaming into the black highveld cold. It must have been her Xhosa tongue, clicking like soft rain on a tin roof, that kept me from crying out in my brief moment of waking, kept me from thinking it was the Tokolosh come to suck me away. “Tsht, Monkey . . . thula baba, jhe,” I must have heard her whisper.
“Thank you, Salamina,” my father said in the murmur of the house rustled into waking.
It must have been Salamina’s sound and smell that lulled me back to the safety of sleep as she ran with me quickly to lay me in the backseat of the car. And it must have been Salamina who closed the gate behind us, watching as we drove away, her stomach swollen, ready, with a child who was not to be mentioned outside the walls of our house.
Before the first gleam of dawn began to light the Great North Road on the outskirts of the city, I woke in my blanket on the backseat. Peering out into the night, I saw the piling yellow sands of gold mines ghosting by like dark castles, their glimmer robbed, long gone. I knew, with a leap in my chest, this was the way to Clova.
It was the acrid odor of smoke that woke me—thousands of fires already fueling the daily life of the native townships, Soweto and Alexandra—the same smell that seeped from the pockets and folds of Salamina returning from her servant’s day off each week—a black and sour smell. A smell I did not notice near my home, where electricity burned bright and there was no need of a fire except as a frippery on a chilly night. You are not allowed to go in there, not without a special paper, my sleeping head bossed me, into those townships. They lapped, silent as we passed, at the edges of Johannesburg.
Through the sweet, laden orange trees of Nylstroom we went, and out into the northern veld far from the lights of any city or town, where the sky was higher, blacker, and the early dawn deeper, quieter. It told you nothing. Only the swift rub of tires sounding their long, dark call.
My mother sat in the front seat, the promise of Clova in the distance ahead, her rough edges softened, calm again, with my father driving us further and further out into the veld. Too early for smoking but not finding a reason to wait, she lit a cigarette, filling the car with the scratching smell of a match. She opened the window, washing us in cool air, and rested her head back. From the backseat, I saw her eyes close down at the sides as she breathed out. The wet corners of her thick, black lashes wove top into bottom, like shongololo-worm legs folding together in the rain.
Not brushed or neat now, the soft curls of her Jacqueline Kennedy hair fell a bit over the neck of her green wool jersey, where the label stuck out. She managed to hold the cigarette and simultaneously finger her delicate pearl earring with the same hand, between her fourth finger and thumb—soothed, in her small cloud of smoke.
I did not risk tucking the label in for her, lest it scratch her skin, or aggravate her.
I thought, suddenly, of promising not to root in the sugar box when no one was looking. It was a promise I knew she would welcome, as it would cure the horrible, spiky condition called hyperactivity that routinely befell me soon after—prompting Salamina more than once to cry out, “Jheh, Miss Lizzy, you are jumping like a monkey!”
But on second thought, I decided to save the sugar box promise for later, if things got worse. For now, I would just be exceedingly quiet. I would say very little when we got to Clova, and would not appear like a pest too much in front of her, except maybe to stroke her feet as they peeped out of her blankets, if she napped there in the afternoons. Through sleeping eyes, she would not see me. I would smooth her feet, keeping my hand flat and gentle, the way she sometimes smoothed me.
As we drove, my head banged inside with the commotion of the day before. Usually, no one said anything about my mattress. Usually, Salamina and Iris, the newish nanny for baby John, carried it out to air in the sun. They’d lay it on the grass in the backyard for their lunch hour, then settle themselves, unbuttoning their cotton uniforms a bit under the powdery, yellow mimosa trees behind the house, eating doorstop-thick jam sandwiches and embroidering white pillowcases with jaunty flowers for their servants’ rooms.
Late in the afternoon, my mother had come into my room to lie down next to me on my cured bed. In her yellow linen dress, creased and slept-in like a crushed lemon-cream biscuit, she lay with her face close to mine, loving me, her body grateful, like a boat that had drifted unexpectedly to safety after a terrible storm. She put her hand on my hair—chopped off in brown tufts to make it grow lustrously full in the future. One day I’d be jolly thankful for thick hair, she often told me. She kissed me, dozed with me a bit, and then said suddenly, getting up again, “Oh God, Elizabeth. You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you? I just can’t bloody cope with it. . . .”
It wasn’t that I didn’t remember to run if I felt it coming. I promise it happened without my noticing, creasing my khaki cotton broeks into burning, smelly folds. Mostly I waited for it to dry, hoping it would not stink and thereby alert someone. The sun helped a lot, if you were jolly clever and hared out there quickly enough. And rubbing the back of yourself in the dried-out flower bed helped, soaking it away in a sandy crust that stuck to the sopping broeks. If you were lucky and got the mixture exactly right, it would cake itself on to hide the chafing patch.
She must have smelled it in the mattress, smelled me, the bad stink of the dried sand. I had never heard her swear, or really even raise her voice. She held on to me again, and said she was very sorry, and again I was her harbor, wet with her tears.
By the time my father came home after dusk, her door had been closed for hours, and I had been quiet for just as long. I heard the tires on the dirt driveway. I heard his car door close, and waited in the passage until I saw him at the end of it. He was tall to me, with glinting, sad eyes, a quick temper, and, they had just said in the Rand Daily Mail, brilliant.
He put his black physician’s bag down and covered his brow with his hand as if he had seen enough for one day.
“Mommy’s sleeping,” I whispered.
“Where’s Salamina? Why are the lights off?” he asked. “Hello, my Lizzy . . .”
I leapt up to him. He had been at his consulting rooms all day, setting up his first practice at the top end of the stony hill that was Bell Street, where the buses came in from the black townships, and the dirt road was lined with tiny, sharp stones glinting like salt in the sun. Most of his new patients were going to be Afrikaans, some English like us, a whole lot black, and a few in between. He’d navigated with some skill and a bit of humor, he’d later say, the Afrikaans whispers about the new doctor Isaac Grace being “Jood,” and more disgusting even than that, his wife, Eugenie, “Katoliek!” He’d separated, as required now by the laws, the black consulting rooms from the white, blacks going up the back stairs to their section, and whites up the front to theirs—thinking all the while of time wasted walking between the two. And there were other whispers he’d heard, surreptitious little jokes, subtle questions from patients, meant as feelers to discover where the new doctor stood in the ongoing problem of the native question. Predictions were offered about the teeming, likely violent masses. And now he had come home to find us in a heap, not coping with ourselves.
He said nothing to me about the wet broeks. I might be in the clear. Perhaps he’d already decided, before the broeks palaver, to take my mother to Clova for a rest, and let her parents restore her. He walked up the passage and went into her room.
Later, he let me ride on his shiny shoes, his feet under my bare ones, around the darkening acre of our garden. He told me how proper Mrs. Engelbrecht had mistakenly gone up the back stairs for Blacks Only at the new doctor’s rooms, and about the giggles and whispers in his waiting room when, in her embarrassment, she sternly admonished him to mark his stairs more clearly. “Why was she cross?” I asked. “Don’t know,” he said, and then as if he wasn’t really speaking to me, “Afraid she’ll catch something dire on the black stairs. Probably leapt into her shower and scrubbed her bloody skin off.”
At the tangled granadilla vines, we’d paused to search high above for a tiny light in its unimaginable orbit. Four years before, in 1959, a monkey peered out of his porthole as he soared through the heavens, his eyes lit with tricks, doubts, and fears. I scanned the nocturnal sky for him, his face glued to his window in the high silence above.
Suddenly, everything blurred.
“Brown pools . . . they think they’re pools,” my father said in the bug-thick dark, licking his finger and digging a miggie or some flying thing out of my eye.
The night smelled heavy-sweet with rotting moonflowers left over from summer. The throb of crickets drowned the din of my mother’s quiet absence in my ears. Our house from outside was unlit, except for the passage so we could find our way to bed. Oh no nothing will happen GOD won’t let anything happen Oh nonothingwill happen, droned in my night-head as we walked. The world inside our fence seemed suddenly as unpredictable as the world outside.
Bluer than English violets, my mother’s eyes were already closed when we went back in—just her cool feet sticking out of the blanket she’d pulled over to cover herself away. My father splashed his face with water in the bathroom. I heard it drip on the floor. He did not put on the light in there.
I stood by her bed in the shuttered dark. Her room smelled of Blue Grass powder, skin, sweet tea, and sadness. I had crept in to soothe her, to pat her feet, to let her know that I would no longer wet the bed, or my khaki broeks, that I would not be impossible in any way, that I would wash myself jolly clean with Vinolia sandalwood soap (guaranteed to work, I knew, because it was by appointment only to Her Majesty the Queen, and you’ve never seen her filthy), that I would try to look pretty and to smell nice.
I patted my wishes into her soft skin, hoping they would melt into her sad understanding as she slept. I told her that I loved her. And not wanting to ever mention the words again, I hoped in my head that she had not meant it when she’d said earlier that she wanted to die, or run away.