Willemien de Villiers


Lucas’ favourite linen jacket strains across his back and pinches his armpits as he puffs forward in his narrow seat to remove the in-flight magazine from its pocket. Ever since Mila’s sudden death one year ago, all his clothes seem to have shrunk. Lucas is seated at the very centre of the plane and he looks with forlorn envy at a large man diagonally across from him, leaning comfortably against the oblong window. This man is wearing a striped jelabba, or is it a gandora? – Mila would have known the difference.

A moment earlier, when the silent and surly fight attendant snapped his seatbelt extender into place, Lucas knew that coming on this trip – a gift from his well-meaning brother – was a mistake.

The long flight to Madrid is finally airborne. Red-eyed, dishevelled attendants throw meals onto the small trays as if competing in some bizarre race; then, after removing the empty containers with similar haste, disappear for the night.
Lucas does not sleep, but tracks the plane’s slow, blinking creep on the screen attached to the seat in front of him. A memory from a previous flight (when Mila had secured him a window seat) arises; of feeling obliterated by the darkness of the African continent that was only occasionally broken by sprinkles of golden light coming from fires or electrified villages or larger towns. How afraid he had felt then, and how reassuring Mila’s steady breathing had been. He coughs away the spasm of grief that attempts to release itself from somewhere deep inside: spleen, gut, lungs, heart?

The child next to him sleeps. Lucas is thankful for the child’s presence; for his indifference. When awake, he turns his back to Lucas and cuddles his mother. The elderly woman on his right is also asleep, snoring softly. Lucas feels grateful for her contained presence too, and closes his eyes to better see and hear Mila’s wry comment about so much gratitude under such difficult circumstances.


The holiday itself is dull and uneventful, as he knew it would be. Even sighting the Rock of Gibraltar from the railing of the ferry carrying him to Morocco fails to lift his mood. It merely reminds him of the snout of Hangklip, close to the small Cape village where Mila grew up. Jabal Tariq, he hears a man next to him say. Mila used to refer to the Rock by its Arabic name, and she had told him of its meaning in Phoenician times; how it was believed to be one of two markers that defined the limits of the known world.

In Morocco Lucas shops for Mila: lustrous bolts of vegetable silk in colours that bring tears to his eyes. He sips endless glasses of mint tea with cunning stallholders who fail to sense his loss. They sell him an embroidered red leather bag and Hands of Fatima bracelets to ward of evil. He buys a ring from an old Berber woman whose chin is decorated with a tattoo; a large +-sign that bleeds blue into her soft skin.

On the day before returning home, Lucas flies back to Madrid and books into a small hotel near the Reina Sofia museum where Mila had spent many hours studying Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Its strong anti-war sentiment impressed her; the artist’s commitment to democracy made her eyes shine. His luggage travels to his top-floor room accompanied by a wafer-thin chambermaid; at the lift’s return, he enters it and manages to press the button with his elbow. He shoots upward, firmly encapsulated by the minute contraption’s wrought iron frame.

On this last day, Lucas buys two ornate statues of the Virgin Mary; if his wife’s atheist soul was moved by this insipid-looking woman, who is he to argue? He also buys a string of rosary beads and a pack of prayer cards displaying gaudy saints.

Lucas arrives at the museum at noon and soon finds the famous painting. He doesn’t like this monochromatic portrayal of war at all; always managed to escape its fraught gaze by drifting away to the ‘Woman in Blue’. Failing to find his wife in either painting he leaves, tugging at the sleeves of his jacket. In its pocket lies an image of the screaming man in the top right-hand corner of the painting; a bookmark he bought at the exit. The man’s arms are thrown up in despair, yet to Lucas he seems free.

The hotel manager arranged for a taxi to take him to the airport. Lucas lowers himself into the passenger seat while the driver places his luggage in the boot of the car. He pats his pocket holding his plane ticket, passport, the ‘Guernica’ bookmark, then glances up at the rear-view mirror. He watches in disbelief as two stocky young men deftly heave his bags from the car, turn around and run away. Opening his door, he tumbles out onto the pavement. The sound of ripping fabric liberates his lungs and he screams and screams into the indifferent, milling crowds.

Lucas frees his arms from the now-useless jacket and thrusts his fists into the air. In the far distance, he sees flashes of purple, red and green as the thieves inspect their haul.

Melanie Carstens

My Beloved

I murdered my husband while he slept last night. I covered his face with a pillow and waited until I was sure he breathed no more.  Afterwards, I went to my room and sunk into the icy bed, and waited for night to turn to day; fully dressed, my long grey hair plaited, as it was everyday, yesterday’s make-up and last night’s dinner dress still on.  I didn’t even bother to remove my shoes.

With morning, came his nurse and then the doctor, suddenly life again in our house. The doctor, nearly as old as my husband, and as much a part of my life, our life. I stood beside him as he examined the frail lifeless body and when he eventually spoke, his words were slow and pronounced.

He went quietly in his sleep. It was his time to go. There was nothing more we could have done for him. It’s better this way. 

He hugged me and whispered sweet words of sympathy, understanding and friendship; but didn’t stay long. I suppose he’d seen my embarrassed relief as I’d stood at the edge of my husband’s bed and remembered all that we had done to keep him alive and sick, grotesque with pain and disease. He knew what I’d done.  A knowing unsaid.

They took his body away an hour ago, and there is much for me to do now.  Instead, I’m sitting at the window in his favourite chair drinking his whiskey.  It’s early in the afternoon, too early to be drinking whiskey, but I craved the numbness that I knew it would bring. The nurse is in that room, I can hear her, as she moves.  I wish that she would leave; I can’t stand her being in there.  I’d never liked her, young, pretty, happily married, sprinkling her laughter here and there as she went about soothing my beloved with her innocent stories and caring hands.

I wonder what she’d say if she saw me sitting here drinking in the afternoon.  I want to cry, but instead I laugh.  A grieving old lady, getting drunk in the middle of the day.  Me, a teetotaler. But I am grateful for the numbness, and so I take another sip, and another until there is just the ice left in my glass.   What am I now, without my husband?  What of the children we never had, would I have had the courage to tell them of what I have done?  I feel compelled, suddenly to tell someone.  I want catharsis; I want to be free of my sin.

Just then she walks in.  Her eyes are dewy, her nose and cheeks flushed; but she smiles to mask her grief. Protecting me, I suppose. She whispers that she’s finished and that she’ll be leaving.  She asks if I need anything before she goes and I say yes, holding up my empty glass.  Her eyes move to the table at my right and I watch her expression change as she comprehends the whiskey bottle. I watch her backside, it’s large and tightly packed into her white trousers, as she waddles unquestioning, towards the kitchen.  I hate her, and I don’t know why.  I suppose it is because I hate myself.

She fetches ice and water and pours me another drink, asking me if I’d like something to eat and I tell her no, I tell her that I am full with misery and she touches my arm.  I pull away and stare at her.  A few moment of silence, and then I tell her that I killed him.  I let the words fall from me, relieved.

I killed him last night, it was me who did it, I put a pillow on his face.

She looks at me, with her wide unlined eyes and kneels in close.  I let her take the glass from my hand, as the tears finally, painfully fall from my face.  She looks at me, locks her eyes on mine, and tells me not to speak of such silly things.  Her voice is firm and reassuring.  She pulls a tissue from her pocket and wipes my sobs, and then lifts me from my chair and guides me gently to my room.  She pulls the covers back and helps me into my bed, removing my dress and my shoes and wiping my face tenderly with a warm cloth.  Sleep now, she says, and then she leaves me to the silence of my dreams where I search for salvation.

A short while later, I see my husband sitting on the edge of my bed, I am not sure if I am dreaming, but I don’t care. He takes my hand in his and raises it to the warmth of his lips.  I hear him speak, and I know it’s his voice and I don’t remember anything of what I have done. I feel his love as he holds me close, finally, and I am filled with joy. We smile at each other. I have missed him for as long as I can remember.

Isobel Terry

Bus stops.

The bus stops. He sits at the front upstairs to see the view. A group of teenagers pour into the back seats. Laughter and remarks to everyone and no one.  He combs his fingers through his bushy black hair. He holds tightly onto his rucksack and hums to calm himself. The sounds of their voices get louder. He gets up to go downstairs. Safer down there. His eyes scan the rows of faces for an empty place.One next to the window, a man gets up to let him in. He sits down.  

The animated chatter and exclamations of the driver to his mate. The tunes on the radio hover between chant and melody. A road into mountains. Bare rock. The cracking of glaciers. Peaks merge with sky. A place where plates collide and mountains grow. The sea is far away. The muffled cough and spluttering of a woman sat on the back seat. It was all sound. Woman sat at the back completely covered. At stops the men got out to let them in and out averting their eyes. Only the men left the bus to pray.

The bus stops. It is not a stop.

The driver and his mate get out to clear a huge boulder in the road. People to help appear from nowhere. Tumbling torrents of clear water. A howling of wind. A running tap. The smell of gasoline and sweat. He stands on the edge of the road tall and poised flicking a small ball between his feet. ‘Keep up’ he plays. His legs twist and rotate. From afar he appears naked dancing on that hillside. No one surrounds him. The ball stays in the air. It can be heard more than seen. A sound of dried seeds falling.

The lights are red. The sun is strong. A woman at the crossing. A car does not stop. Thud. She softens into the impact and spins on the bonnet. Her legs extend and toes point out into the air. She slides off the wing landing on the tarmac. The car stops just inches from her hands. She is completely still, her breath shallow. The driver’s face is frozen in the windscreen. Eyes wide. The rucksack on her back cushions the blow. Her cells spill out all over the road . Some remain on the spot.

At a small village all the men descend. She gets on the bus. The only western woman in these parts. Her bright scarf is drawn tightly around her head. She lowers her face. The women shuffle closer together and she sits down between them. The hooter calls.The engine starts. A rattle of the exhaust. The driver begins to sing along with the radio. A smell of lavender. The spluttering stops. Faint female laughter. The men return and bus moves on. He senses her behind him.

Suddenly she is standing. He does not see how this happens. Some people have gathered around her. They do not touch her. Her face is drained of blood. She waves her arms around moving her lips. The traffic piles up in a long line around the corner. The sound of a siren’s wail. An ambulance is trying to reach her. He looks at her intently for a very long time, breathing through glass. Her hands clasp the railings by the crossing. Sunlight catches her hair. She closes her eyes. The cells return inside the membrane of her skin. A molecular calling. Membranes permeablity changed. Forever.

A checkpoint. A thin barrier. Stoned soldiers surface from their post. Three local men are waiting. One boards the bus holding his Kalashnikov over his shoulder. They have come for her. She does not cry out. There is no sound. All the passengers stay seated and still. In the aisle her scarf falls from her head. She turns to look at him. Her soft eyes, a faint smile. Time is still. Her glance, it hits the back of his eyes like a arrow. In a few seconds she is gone. Head covered. The barrier lifts the bus passes through. The four disappear up a steep path. All he sees is barren brown rock. Black ravens fly around from all directions stretching across a blue grey sky. 

The lights turn green. The traffic does not move. She feels the hand of someone touching her back, just behind her heart. She takes a new breath. A breath from behind herself. The ambulance arrives. He sinks into his seat. The man next to him nods his head. A vague smile. Of mutual recogniton having seen her too.  And her falling and standing. The teenagers tumble down the stairs, the next stop is theirs. He remembers a missing piece.

The sound of the kiss she left on his left cheek.

The bus moves on.

Vuyiseka Dubula

My Humanity


All I can say to you is that humanity is very strange. They say our values are humaneness, inclusiveness, respect, love, peace and kindness. This apparently is what sets us apart from the animals. But human beings can be unkind. Even animals are not as unkind as humans.  Being born “free” gives life meaningful sounds: sounds of love, joy, peace, respect and kindness. Being born “free may not mean we live freely. We are restricted and often it all comes down to power and resources: those have it and those who do not. You know that classic, Animal Farm? Well it’s like that.  It is survival of the fittest.

Why do I go on like this as if I am trying to make sense of something that I find quite incomprehensible? Well sit a little closer, and I’ll tell you.

How else can I begin to explain how a young girl experiences abuse from someone who calls himself her father? Or I should not put the blame to the father but to something bigger. Why does she kneel down and reach out to powers above   wishing and praying daily that good news will reach her ears telling her that her father is no more and to celebrate his death?
Look at her. Crying almost every weekend instead of enjoying childhood, deprived of a father’s honest love, sleeping in layers of clothes to avoid incest, for all her life keeping close the secret that he touched her in a way that a father should never do, wondering whether he does the same with her sisters and i lying about the rape of her siblings and being forced to say, ‘I did not hear anything,’ because he is the provider. Look at her.

Where is the freedom and humanity there, does it exist in homes like these, can this girl really live freely? Look at her becoming accustomed to the sounds of fights until she could not hear them anymore, becoming numb to her stepmother’s cries and to the banging and shouting.
Look at her. She cannot smile on the outside and as she grows she continues to search for freedom and identity from the inside. She creates her invisible bubble; only she knows it is there and it shields her.

I see you shaking your head. What hope is there for her if she is not acting her anger out? Will she crack and probably end up in a mental institution? But this girl is strong and resilient. She knew what she was doing. She planned the right time to run away from this unkind situation to an unknown situation wishing that it might be better than here. Only to land up in a worse one. Because what could she do? She had to be an adult early; she needed a sense of belonging and love just to have relief from the home situation. Can you understand this? How sexual relations with a stranger are easier than those with her father? But seeking that relief ended up being her biggest mistake. It led to her current health condition. And now I have to ask you a question. I need you to think carefully.  Is she a victim of her situation or is it that she did not know that she was one of many other victims of the bigger system? The vulnerability created by her situation led to that mistake. And why? How could this happen to someone born to be free, living in a society that believes in being humane? What went wrong?

And could anything ever go right for her? She learned that you can easily get lost in the tunes, sounds and rhythms of life. She also learned that it was possible to find herself, to smile, love, have peace, be humble and hold fast to the encouraging principles and values of humanity. That it was possible to shed tears, not of sadness, but of joy and happiness and to hold her head high, liberate her from the childhood monsters that lived in her dream. That it might be possible to see men differently and find those positive male role models. That she could relate to others who had the same fears that she did, that she had the power to encourage others to find solutions to the problems of an unnatural and unjust world. She learned that she could find strength in humanity and she learned to trust again.

But how, you ask. How could a girl who had suffered so much do this? It wasn’t easy. Self-liberation, self-esteem and shaping a new identity are all processes that need help. There is no short cut. At the age of seven years her father told her that she was worthless and he said this repeatedly as she grew. What did she do? She tackled it head on and she proved him wrong. First she went into therapy. Then she went back to school. She showed that she was worth something.
You look relieved. You were worried about her, weren’t you? Don’t be. She’s strong. She’s a fighter, a survivor. Educating herself gave new meaning to humanity and she gained a sense of control over her destiny.

And then, wonder of wonders, she found a new home, filled with people full of energy, many of whom had suffered the same injustices as her.
She found the Treatment Action Campaign, representative of  new hope and home,  a group that brings the true meaning of humanity to those forgotten or even denied by society.

Don’t worry about her. She now draws strength and courage from working with other young women who face similar challenges in their life. She works with them as a collective to revive our hopes and dreams to be reality. And through her work, and the work of others like her she hopes that our ears will no longer be deaf to the sounds, tunes and rhythms of life. Because now she knows that life actually has singing birds early in the morning, that there are bright full moons that bring the honest natural light. That we can rise above all like the sun rising above the sea and mountains in the morning giving us new day light. Sounds that we hear every day do not have to have to be the sounds that we have to get used to, we can choose to listen to the beautiful and inspiring sounds of our humanity that show how unique we are and change the bad rhythms of the bad sounds by adding a tunes and drums in the velocity and come up with a beautiful melody. Humaneness is possible although it does not always come easily and it is not as obvious as we think. 

And so here she is, looking at humanity and humaneness again. Still trying to make sense of it all.  The sounds of life have different velocities and rhythms. Sounds of humanity are those rhythms and velocities. We may find comfort in the sounds and tunes, but when life seems impossible and stripped of humaneness, the art of living comes from knowing how to deal with the different sounds so that a life can come to life again.

Heleen Sliep

A man


The carry handles of the Woolworths bag were tied with a double knot.  He tried to undo it with dirty fingernails.  The people boarding the bus looked at him, and then moved past him quickly.  He sat on the single seat in the first row.  He knew people were staring at him but he didn’t look up.  He kept his focus on the knots.  He felt the disgust as the passengers walked past him.  Teenagers in the back seats yelled swearwords at passing cars.  He placed the plastic bag on his lap with the Woolworths logo face-up hoping they wouldn’t notice his ragged and filthy clothes.  He became panicky because he couldn’t get the knots untied.

The hydraulics of the bus made a hissing sound as the doors opened and closed. A thud followed as they hit the metal frame.  He managed to find some rhythm in that.  Stop, hiss, thud.  Footsteps of new passengers.  Stop, hiss, thud.  Footsteps of new passengers.  He listened in anticipation as each stop approached.  Some passengers were openly disgusted.  Didn’t they notice the shopping bag?  The panic crept up on him. Up from the pit of his stomach.  Aching its way past his lungs, squashing what air there was left.  Out through his throat in a muffled sound.  His head began to buzz, his hands started shaking.  He jumped up, his eyes wild.  He leaned over the back of the seat and yelled out: “It’s a Woolworths bag.” He recalls his brother’s voice: “We will go to Woolworths and buy her some Belgian Chocolates and yellow roses. Ma loves yellow flowers, especially yellow roses”.  His brother bought chocolates, flowers and a tiny wooden horse wrapped in a parcel of toffees.  He gave him the little parcel when they left the shop.  He can still feel the excitement. Oh he felt so loved at that moment.  They were so happy then.

He was frightened by his outburst.  He had shouted so loudly. It frightened him.  He had never been so loud before.  He slid back into his seat.  His ears burned bright red, he could feel them hot at the side of his head, but his breath was easier.  He could start to feel the rhythm coming back.  He heard the sniggers followed by laughter.  It was the youngsters in the back of the bus.  No manners, no manners. They had no manners.  He tried to find the rhythm as the bus came to a halt again.  Stop, hiss, thud.  Footsteps of new passengers.  Stop, hiss.  He looked up, waiting for the thud, and saw a man neatly dressed in a dark grey suit.  His blue tie had the neatest knot he had ever seen.  The man looked at him and quickly looked away.  He recognised the man and smiled.  He wished he was sitting on a double seat so that the man could sit next to him.  He self-consciously moved the Woolworths bag to the floor.  The man in the suit walked past then stopped suddenly and retraced his steps. He looked him in the eye and hesitated.  Then he gave him the leather sling bag which was hanging from his shoulder and walked on.  He opened the sling bag, peered inside and quickly closed it again.  He then slung it across his shoulder and bent down to pick up the plastic bag. He pierced a hole in the bag with a long dirty fingernail and gently lifted out a tiny wooden horse. 

The bus stopped again.  He got up, leaned over to a little boy seated on the other side of the aisle and gave him the little wooden horse.  The doors hissed and thudded against the metal frame and he got off the bus clutching his Woolworths bag.  The thumping bass of music from a car vibrated through the tarmac on the pavement and entered his body through the soles of his tattered shoes.  He liked the feeling of the music as it thumped inside him.  There was no tune, just the rhythmic beat that warmed up his insides.  His back grew straight. He smelled clean clothes on his skin.  He smiled.  A woman passing smiled back.

Hiss. Thud!  The little boy flashed past him, his hand guiding the wooden horse on a make-believe gallop along the window.   He leapt towards the boy with astonishing speed.

The driver of the bus sat frozen, knuckles white.  The passengers gathered on the pavement and speculated in hushed voices.  The little boy’s mother gasped hysterically and hugged his head against her chest.  He tried to wriggle free, reaching for the small horse on the pavement.  The neatly dressed man in the dark grey suit stood on the pavement, tears flowing down his cheeks.
The paramedics asked if anybody knew who the man was.
The man in the suit stumbled forward, his foot catching on a bloodied plastic bag.
“That’s my brother,” he said.

Hilary Whitehorn

Sophie’s room

My mother was so proud of the parquet floor in Sophie’s room – I never understood why.  Her bed had looped iron rounded feet and it stood on bricks – to ward away the tokolosh I had been told. There were newspapers wrapped around the bricks.  There was no hanging space but a waist high wooden cupboard that ran along the wall .  It had the same smell as the African shop I had sometimes been into where you could get a buttermilk sucker – visstok or something funny they called it, for half a cent.  Next door was the gardener’s room but I had never been in there.  Sophie was, like us, scared of my mother.  Petrol is burning she would say and crack her fingers together – we all knew this meant trouble – big trouble.  We could not be caught inactive, that meant trouble.  Anything pleasurable also meant trouble which is why I quickly discovered that climbing up the chestnut tree and hiding behind the conkered bright green leaves meant I was safe.  I could drink my stolen can of condensed milk in the fork of that tree and make a pact with God that I would become a nun if only my mother didn’t find out.  I could also hide under the hedge – no one ever found me under the hedge bordering the road.  Once when I was locked out of the house I came to know the berries on that hedge well and discovered they were not poisonous.

Sophie’s toilet was a walk over the thick kikuyu grass away. It had an adjacent shower with hot and cold water my mom said proudly.  The toilet was off a horribly dark and shadowy passage with a squeaking metal solid gate at the end.  There was a bolt you had to push across, pressing with your full body weight so it scraped noisily and started the Alsatians barking.
The house was on a rise, the driveway uphill and the car lights would sweep across the grass in front of the garages.  The property was too big at night time and full of strange shapes and noises.  Sophie would shield us and treasure us.  Her radio singing strange music with instruments I did not know.  Sometimes I would hear drums in the distance and I would grow frightened.  I had heard the stories about the mission on which my father had worked and about the wives learning to handle a gun during the first uprisings and how nuns had been shot doing the work of God.

The Wanderers was a beautiful place.  The clubhouse grand and intimidating. The gym hall where the girls pulled my panties out the side of my leotard while we waited to vault was large and high.  But the pool by night was different. I hated the swimming. I was not long and leanly able like my second sister Wendy.  Backstroke was the worst. The pool so pretty with the lights reflected in the water. For a moment it looked like a party was going to happen.  But then there was that awful moment when you had to dive in and feel the cold water shock on your warm body and the air choked out on a watery breath and water going up the back of your nose and trying to kick but sinking and gagging and shivering and choking the pretty shining water.  And then I couldn’t hear the clapping or the cheering and all I had to do was get to the other side so I could scramble clumsily out and pull the black speedo away from my body where it clung.  The rubber of my cap pulled my hair and I can still fell the choke of that water in my throat.

They took me home after the gala.  Another lift from another someone.  Always being lifted.  It pained my parents when I asked them to be taken somewhere.  My demands made them sad and tired and only later did I realise how little it was to ask to be taken to a birthday party and that it did not make you bad or wicked or selfish.  And it was wonderfully exciting to carry your party dress to school and to climb onto the bus with it and change in the birthday girl’s bedroom before the pass the parcel and cake cutting fun began.  And happiness hung in the sky like a sunset.

The house was clearly empty. And quietly, shadowly locked.  The lift people had dropped me and gone home to their cosy family house.  The gate bolt scraped, the dogs barked, but the house was empty.  I was scared.  And tired.  And little.  I did the only thing there was to do.  I went to Sophie’s room and knocked on the door.  I fell asleep on that fancy parquet floor next to the newspaper bricks.  I did not know the police had been called.  I did not know that people had walked around the property with torches looking for me.  I only know that when they found me I had never felt so lost.

Crystal Warren

The New Neighbour

I lie awake listening to the traffic. No matter what time of day or night, someone is driving past. Where are they going to so late, or rather so early? Anglers embarking on a fishing trip? Travelers leaving town? Revelers returning from parties? I guess I should be glad that the parties in my block of flats do not end so late. Or lovers returning briefly to their own beds. Like the new boyfriend of my neighbour, who leaves most nights between midnight and morning. I hear her door open, the bang of the security door downstairs, footsteps on the stairs. She seems to wait at her door until he disappears down the stairwell, because he always stops and calls back “I love you”. This would be sweet if it weren’t outside my bedroom window in the middle of the night.

I know more about my neighbours than I would like. They live at high volume, coming and going, talking and laughing in the passage, on their balconies. They seem to know each other well, I often see them visiting other flats, or talking together in the parking lot. Sometimes it makes me lonely, and I long to be part of the group. But only sometimes. And not for long. I like my solitary life – no clutter, no complications.  If we meet on the stairs we greet, then go our separate ways. I wonder what they think of me. No loud music, no visitors, no balcony parties or braais in the communal garden which I never use. I have few friends, and my son lives far away.

No, my life is quiet. I do not inflict it on others, forcing the whole block to listen to me. Not like some of them. Not that they are bad, they all seem pleasant enough. Lately there is less loud music late at night, I suspect out of consideration for the family upstairs with their new baby. I just wish the child had the same consideration. I’m not blaming it, or the parents. Babies cry. But this one does it all the time. At night I hear its shrill outraged voice, soothing tones of the mother, footsteps as she walks above me. I remember those long walks, willing a child to stop crying and sleep. But I didn’t live in a flat. I didn’t bother anyone else. I never do.

But now I am tempted. The constant crying is driving me crazy; it has been going on for days. Or rather nights. None of the neighbours sleep. We all lie awake listening, willing it to stop. In the evenings it is masked as people put on their televisions or play music, loud enough to drown out the cries. My flat is right in the middle, so I hear all eight different sets of sounds. I can’t take it much longer. No, it is time to talk to the mother. I am going upstairs now.

“I am sorry to disturb you but … Yes the baby is disturbing me… Please don’t cry … I didn’t come to complain but to see if I could help.  Don’t cry, give it to me. There there, everything will be alright.”

Finally they are both asleep. I had been walking the baby while the mother, barely more than a child herself, told me her story. The husband working shifts, the mother too far to visit often, and the flat too small for her to stay. The baby who doesn’t want to sleep and cries all the time. Her constant tiredness and increasing desperation. Slowly the tears stopped, and then the voice. Now she  is fast asleep on the couch. I don’t want to intrude by wandering the flat looking for the baby’s bed, and besides, if I move she might wake up.

So I sit and listen to the sounds of the flats waking up. The birds have started their morning chorus, the traffic has increased, although it is softer from up here. I can hear geysers groaning as baths are run, early risers are already leaving home, banging doors, revving cars. I should go soon, I like to be at work early, before anyone else gets there. But today I sit in this strange flat listening to the soft breathing of a mother and child.

I had better get used to it. I still can’t believe I offered to babysit. Not all the time, but occasionally when they want to go out together, or when things are bad and she just needs a break. What have I done? All my fiercely protected privacy will now be invaded and at my own invitation. Now I face the prospect of children, conversations, clutter, complications. Of visitors – did I really offer my spare room for her mother to use? What was I thinking? All because of this wretched child, who lies sleeping in my arms. Still. Perfect. Whole. She wakes up, stretches small arms and smiles at me, welcoming the stranger into her life, her community.

Hennette Calitz

We bring our hearts home to be mended

The peppermint smell of the toothpaste nudging her awake, she glances at the mirror and freezes. Her grandmother is staring back at her – her gaze calm despite the fact that she is foaming at the mouth.

And how did YOU deal with it, she asks the mirror. How did you live with yourself, with the knowledge that you had lost – no, even worse – that you had given up the only precious thing you ever had?

Her grandmother says nothing. Just stares back at her – no emotion visible – so that she drops her head and continues brushing her teeth.

Before she reaches for the back door handle to let the world in, she breathes in deeply and with that she inhales the memories that are her daily companions. She is young, beautiful, loved. Then there is an early knock on the door. The children are still asleep. Her hair unbrushed, clutching the dressing gown shut. Her hand reaching for the door she realises it has to be bad news – no-one comes to your door this early. And so, when she opens the door with the sun in her eyes and the two uniformed men on the stoep just blurry outlines, she hardly reacts. Not then, not later. Not in front of the children, not in public. Yet never again did she have an undisturbed night, a night without questions, without wild promises to unknown gods, without tears and anger and hatred.

She turns the key, pushes the handle down. She opens the door to another bright yellow day, blue skies, birds twittering chirruping fluttering in the branches of the karee willows, a new spider’s web spun across the corner of the back stoep and the far-off shouts of farm labourers, a tractor droning away somewhere across the valley.

The spade is where she left it last night, so she continues digging up the potatoes to drop off at her brother’s house when she goes to town for her weekly shopping. Town … the biley taste of anxiety sits in her throat … town is for people who stop talking as she cycles past, people who peer from underneath their upholstered pelmets and then rush to the phone, people like the dominee’s wife who visits the invalids, the poor, the wayward and the stray like an angel of vengeance, sword in hand, ready to battle with whatever demon she may encounter.

She suddenly remembers the wool she had promised to drop off at the old-age home, just to get rid of the angel during her last visit. The cupboards in the spare rooms are stuffed with wool, fabric, buttons, books full of recipes and patterns she does not have enough lifetimes for. The first cupboard she opens is the wrong one – it is packed with awkward remnants of fabric, ghostly templates from which had sprung her children’s clothes – yet she cannot stop her hands moving forward, unpacking shelf after shelf, stroking her children, hearing their laughter, feeling their soft baby bodies harden as they grow.

The whirlwind that followed on that sunlit morning 49 years ago left her with only a few memories – the claustrophobia of well-wishers, the clichés offered on the altar of her pain, and the burning, the longing, the yearning, the great loss – her children’s worrying faces her only anchor. Eventually one thing became certain – she had to go back home, back to where she had grown up, where her parents still lived, returned to the safety of her childhood.

We bring our hearts home to be mended.

The children suffered a second time, yet trusting her, unlike later when they turned on her, firing accusations of not caring of being too hard of not showing emotion not teaching them about love …

That first night at supper her mother, dishing up lamb chops and bean bredie, snapped, ‘I had warned you about his job, how dangerous it is, and you did not listen to me then. How irresponsible it is for a man with small children but you did not listen to me … hard-headed as always!’ The hot tears came, emotion plugging her throat so that she could not speak, her father looking away to avoid the conflict. She stared at the food her mother had lovingly prepared for the homecoming of her firstborn. The embers of pain, damage, hatred, burned steadily on.

The sun sits high, she must get to town. In the bathroom she peels off the sweaty clothes, her grandmother waiting for her, no sign of sweat or tears on her face. She leans forward, letting her head rest against the cool mask staring at her. ‘So HOW did you cope with the loneliness, the hatred?’ she whispers. She gazes into the blue-grey eyes and finds no answers there. Also no accusation, no judgement, no shaming.

She rushes to the phone, leaves a message for the Angel of Vengeance to come by later that afternoon. Naked she walks down the passage, clutching the roll of black bags, towards the cupboards in the spare rooms … towards lightness.

Brenda Durow

Heard in the Dark

She lay quietly in the dark. Listening to her own breathing, to her body telling her she needed to move. Beside her the warm bulk of her sister stretched in deep, dream-enriched sleep. The voices reached her softly, a muted conversation in another room. Words nestling into each other like the soft rustle of dry autumn leaves, an elusive, meaningless murmur in the distance.

Her eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, picking up only faint detail in the weak moonlight filtering through the gap in the clumsily drawn curtains. Nature’s nocturnal noises were a gentle reminder that she was far from home. Owls called a warning to unwary rodents scuffling in the barn, their only answer the distant lowing of a cow calling her calf.

Her mind still slightly befuddled was slow to process the limited information her senses collected. Then the thoughts started taking form – What time was it? How long had she slept? Where was the bathroom?

Careful not to disturb the gently snoring shape next to her, she slid her bare feet to the cold floor. Her fingers fumbling under the high old fashioned bed, for slippers encountered soft, transient dust bunnies, the dry rasp of rats droppings causing her to recoil in disgust. With a “shush-shush” across the faded blooms on the threadbare carpet, the pale square of mirror her target, she edged towards the dimly seen door.

Frustration and need driving her now, she twisted the solid brass knob round, her small hands slipping on the smooth worn surface. Eventually the click as the latch slipped free, the door swung open a crack and the voices were clearer but still swirling just beyond the reach of recognition. Tantalising her with an odd, almost familiar phrase, then receding again.

The heavy door swung back, the knob slipping from her perspiring palm, re-engaging with a harsh whip-crack in the preternatural stillness of the night.

Her whole body has tensed and the breath is caught in her throat as she strains to hear clearly. With an effort she forces her lungs to relax and release, allowing the air to sigh softly through her parted lips.

No moonlight penetrates this far into the house and with the generators off no artificial light remains. A dim, wavering line of light at the end of the passage hints at the candlelit conversation dimly heard. Her back against the wall to support her shaking knees, she shuffles sideways, her eyes straining to discern some form in the dense, oppressive dark. The voices growing louder at her stealthy approach, the rhythm and cadence rising and falling like the tide. The voices are so familiar, yet still maddeningly unrecognisable. The words vaguely discernable, but making no sense.

Her fingers find a door frame, this door hanging open – flatulence, adenoidal snores and foul sea-weed breath reach out to assault her. Her brothers, never fail to irritate even when comatose. But she is no nearer her goal. Her mind starts racing – If only I could remember which door it was? As her bladder stretches, straining, starting to ache she makes the decision – she needs help – which in the absence of Mom and Dad means Grand Pa.

She walks carefully, more confidently, to the faint strip of light and taps on the door, the voices stop.

“Who’s up this late?” Grand Pa calls.

“It’s me, Grand Pa, Catherine. I can’t find the bathroom.”

“Wait there, Kitty- Cat. I’ll be right with you.”

The creak of the floorboards as his weight is transferred, bare feet on wood as he shuffles to the door. The door swings open, a candle on the dresser throwing a welcome light on her anxious face. A smell of lavender, faint and unexpected, follows him from the room. He finishes hastily tying his robe and picks up the candle. His gnarled, calloused fingers curl gently around her small, tender hand and lead her back down the passage, suddenly shorter and less of a threat with his comforting presence beside her.

“Who were you talking to, Grand Pa?”

“Uhm, it was just the radio, couldn’t sleep. A bit of a problem as one gets older you know.”

He lights a second candle waiting ready on the basin’s enamelled edge, waits patiently outside for her to finish. “Don’t forget to wash your hands.”

The geyser long emptied of warmth spits only icy water onto her shivering hands. He escorts her safely back, and tucks her in warmly to snuggle against her sister. Plants a rough kiss on her forehead with a gruff – “Sleep tight; don’t let the bed-bugs bite.”

The next morning the children gather ravenously around the scarred wooden table, a huge meal of steaming oats, toast, tomatoes and scrambled eggs waiting ready on the wood stove.

The warm, white smile on Nthombi’s shining face welcomes her to the feast, “Sawubona, Nkosasana, did you sleep well?” As she leans closer to serve the porridge the dusky scent of lavender infiltrates the breakfast smells. And Catherine starts. Her dazed memory playing “join the dots”; gives disconcerting significance to the conversation she had heard in the darkness.