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Monica imagined her little girl. She'd have blond hair, just like her own, but rather than straight it would be curly, like Zak's when he let his grow longer than an inch. When Monica had first met Dr. Zak Niemand, she'd thought he could have passed for a military man. Dark eyes were dominant, so it was likely the baby's eyes would be brown like Zak's and not green like hers. She hoped the baby would inherit Zak's complexion, too. He tanned easily, while her pale skin turned bright pink and peeled if she was exposed to too much sun.
"I wonder what's taking Mandla so long," said Zak, looking through the windshield toward the front door of their house for the appearance of their eight-year-old adopted son.
Monica knew better than to share her baby fantasies with her husband of three years. He would sayand rightly sothat they were premature. But what was the expression Ella, Mandla's biological mother, had always used? She had felt premonitions "in her bones." After more than two years of trying to get pregnant, Monica could feel in her bones that today was the day the doctor would confirm a tiny baby was growing inside her.
Mandla ran toward the car and hopped into the backseat.
"What's Sipho doing?" Zak asked him.
"Still studying," replied Mandla in a tone that suggested his older brother was engaged in a distasteful pastime. He leaned over the front seat and gave Monica a quick hug. Mandla wanted this baby as much as she and Zak did.
Earlier this afternoon after school, Mandla had snuggled up next to Monica on the sofa and allowed her to hug him as though he were still a baby. If a stranger were to see these tender family scenes, Mandla might seem to be the more sensitive of Monica's two boys. But, in fact, it was fifteen-year-old Sipho who was the more gentle natured. Mandla resembled his late mother, Ella Nkhoma, whom Monica had met in a Soweto hospital. Monica had been shot by a car-jacker while working as a journalist, and Ella had been in the ward for what she'd said was "a touch of bronchitis," but was actually AIDS. Like his mother, Mandla had a personality magnetic enough to fill any room, and people gravitated toward him like ants to spilled juice. At the outdoor concerts in Lady Helen, the little town on the West Coast of South Africa where Monica had moved her family more than five years ago, Mandla always got as close to the stage as possible and sang in accompaniment at the top of his voice, while playing an imaginary guitar or clapping to the music. At church or in a restaurant, he'd call out to people in greeting, shake hands as though he were a politician running for office, and slap backs as he said goodbye. Sipho had always been shySipho, with his big eyes inherited from his father, Themba, who before his death and during the struggle against the apartheid government had been a member of the armed wing of the African National Congress. Themba had infected his wife, Ella, with the HIV virus. Now they were both deceased and the boys had been living with Monica for seven years.
Zak turned onto a smaller road and for a while the car headed straight toward the whitecaps of the agitated ocean. Just as they drew close enough to get a whiff of salt spray, he turned south onto the road that climbed the koppies surrounding Lady Helen. Monica remembered when she'd brought the children to Lady Helen to live. They had driven all the way from Johannesburg and arrived during the middle of a ferocious and unseasonal thunderstorm. The view that had captivated her on her first visit, when she'd come to film a report for the television news program, In-Depth, had been completely obscured by driving rain. Monica's housekeeper, Francina, who had agreed to make the move with the family without having laid eyes on Lady Helen, was prompted to say, "You never told me we were coming to a swamp."
The view of Lady Helen from on top of the koppie always reminded Monica of looking down on a coral reef from a glass-bottomed boat. Cerise, orange, pink and red bougain-villea covered every available surface, so that the town was almost entirely concealed from view except for the tops of the palm trees and the peaks of brightly colored tin roofs. To the north of town, a lagoon stretched inland, in the shape of a giant horizontal question mark, its surrounding brown and blond like the mane of an aging lion. Bougainvillea didn't like wet feet.
The attractive, dark-haired doctor, who had been too busy delivering twins during Monica's first visit to grant her an on-camera interview about the Lady Helen Hospital's new burn unitand had not been allowed to forget it since now drove down the other side of the koppie and joined the main road to Cape Town.
"Everything's so green with all the rain we've had," he remarked, looking at the low scrub bushes of the enclosed national park that stretched up the coast.
Unlike the rest of the country, the Western Cape received its rainfall in winter. During the summer, Monica missed the smell of damp soil and crushed flowers that followed the daily afternoon thundershowers in Johannesburg. When it rained in Lady Helen in winter, you wanted to snuggle indoors under a blanket.
If Sipho were with them, he'd be pointing out birds and flowers, using both the common and scientific names. But he had too much homework to get through this afternoon, he'd said. Monica suspected he was nervous about the result of her pregnancy test. Everyone in the family had been disappointed so many times.
The first time Monica laid eyes on Sipho he'd been watching a wildlife program on television and wearing a Bafana Bafana T-shirt his mother had bought in an attempt to pique his interest in soccer. To this day, he was not the least bit interested in the national team.
The streets of Cape Town in winter were much quieter than in summer, when thousands of European tourists descended.
"The mountain's wearing its tablecloth," said Mandla.
Monica looked out of the car window at the iconic flat-topped mountain that stood guard over the mother city and had once been a welcoming beacon to scurvy-ridden explorers and spice traders en route to the New World. She didn't see a tablecloth but a baby's blanket.
In the waiting room of the reproductive endocrinologist's office, Monica picked up the worn photograph album she had perused many times before. Zak looked over her shoulder at the snapshots of twins, triplets and even one of quadruplets. Thank goodness he realized on this day that it was better not to joke or tease about wanting two little Monicas.
Ivy, the nurse who had been working with Monica for over two years, wore her usual implacable smile. Did she know the results yet? Or would she be in the office and just as suspended in anticipation when the doctor opened the envelope and read the findings? Positive, negative. Two mundane little words, so undeserving of the impact they might have on the lives of a yearning couple.
"Is it still blowing a gale out there?" asked Ivy.
Monica was grateful when Zak answered; she did not feel capable of speech.
Surely Ivy wouldn't be making small talk about the weather if she knew the results of Monica's pregnancy test.
"Will you be okay out here in the waiting room?" Monica asked Mandla unnecessarily. The last thing the boy wanted to do was accompany them into the doctor's office.
Monica and Zak slipped through the swinging doors and followed Ivy down the carpeted hall. The nurse knocked lightly.
"Come in," Dr. Jansen called in his deep voice.
As Ivy held the door open, the doctor rose to greet them, hand outstretched. Monica wondered if he was aware of her trembling as his fingers closed over hers.
"Please sit and I'll tell you what you've come to find out."
Monica and Zak sat down on the upholstered chairs.
Dr. Jansen opened the creased folder of Monica's medical report and cleared his throat. As Zak shifted in his seat, she felt the blood pounding in her ears. She stared at the frames of the doctor's wire glasses and at the beginnings of a bald spot on the top of his head. Please God, she prayed, let him say, "I have good news." The doctor's pale lips started to move. "I'm sorry, Monica, Zak. The result is negative."
Monica covered her eyes with her hands. She felt Zak's warm hand on her knee and her eyes filled with tears. He put his arms around her.
"We'll let your body recuperate for a couple of months and then we can try again," said Dr. Jansen. "Ivy will make arrangements with you to come in and receive a fresh supply of fertility drugs."
But Monica knew that she could not handle flipping through the calendar for a suitable date. She needed to be outside, to feel the air on her hot face, to hear the wind howling up the sides of Table Mountain like a woman wild with grief.
Ivy held the swinging doors open for them, as though they didn't have the strength to do it themselves. Mandla, looking up from his homework as they entered the waiting room, saw Monica's face and immediately began stuffing his books back into his bag. He would not cry; he would hold in his churning disappointment and fury. Normally Monica would tell him not to be so rough with his schoolbooks. But not today. While Zak settled their account, she took Mandla's hand and led him toward the elevator.
Like most of the homes and buildings in Lady Helen, Monica and Zak's house had a tin roof. It also featured green lace filigrees, shutters, wood-frame windows, whitewashed walls and a porch with a polished concrete floor. It was the house that Monica had bought for her little family, but it had been expanded after her marriage to Zak by the addition of a new master suite. The boys each had their own bedroom and there was an extra room for Yolanda, Zak's daughter, who came on weekends from Cape Town, where she lived with her mother. There was also a new garage to replace the one that had been converted into a studio flat for Francina, who was now married and living on Main Street above her shop, Jabulani Dressmakers.
Francina no longer worked as a housekeeper; word of the magic she could weave with a bolt of fabric and a needle had spread as far as Cape Town. She had even been profiled in a national lifestyle magazine. She did, however, still collect Mandla and Sipho from school every afternoon. She'd told Monica more than once how much she dreaded the day when Sipho would go away to university and Mandla would be old enough to take care of himself while Monica was at work at the Lady Helen Herald.
The second Zak pulled into their driveway, the front door opened and Sipho ran out, all arms and legs, to greet them. He had his birth mother's height and his father's slim build.
It was Mandla who'd inherited Ella's broad shoulders and muscled frame. Sipho searched Monica's then Zak's face, and found the answer he was looking for.
"I'm sorry," he said, in his new man's voice that Monica thought she'd never get used to.
"What's that behind your back?" asked Mandla.
"Nothing," said Sipho.
"What is it?" persisted Mandla.
"Just a letter. I'll show you later."
Mandla made a grab for it, but Sipho sidestepped him. Monica and Zak looked at each other in surprise. Sipho did not have any friends elsewhere in the country. Who would have written to him? Perhaps it was from Monica's parents in Italy. Mirinda and Paolo Brunetti spent a few months every spring and summer in South Africa, staying in the Old Garage, as Mandla had christened the studio flat. Because of these extended visits, they had become very close to the boys. But Sipho would not hide a letter from their grandparents from Mandla.
"I was going to show you if " Sipho let the sentence hang in the air, but Monica knew what he'd intended to say. If they'd come home with good news.
"Show us anyway," she said.
She could see him struggling to suppress a smile. Obviously the news in the letter was so exciting he could not keep a solemn face.
"I've been accepted," he almost shouted. "I'm going to be an exchange student in America for a year!"
Monica wondered if her mind was capable of absorbing this fresh bad news. She had helped him with the application, but when she'd signed her name on the form, she'd prayed that he would not be accepted. She didn't want Sipho to go halfway across the world to stay with a family of strangers, no matter how good the experience would look on his application to medical school in a year's time.
She put her hand to her mouth, to stop any words she might regret saying. But there were none. For the second time that day, her eyes filled with tears. She hurried inside.
"Mom?" called Sipho.
But she couldn't turn around. She locked herself in the bathroom. Finally, a private place to grieve.
Francina stopped hemming for a moment to study the bowed head of her adopted daughter, who was sewing beads onto a wedding dress for a lady from a town north of Lady Helen. The poor bride was going to stagger under the weight of a thousand imitation pearls, but Francina always said that she would gladly shave her head if she came across a bride who was not prepared to suffer for beauty on her big day. A groom wouldn't wear shoes that pinched his toes, or a hairstyle that pulled so tight the corners of his eyes lifted, or a shirt so snug across his stomach he couldn't eat a morsel from the menu that had been so painstakingly chosen.
Unlike some of the other fourteen-year-old girls at Green Block School, Zukisa wore her hair in the natural style of proud African women. Sometimes Francina would braid it, but the girl complained that it pulled too tightly on her scalp.