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.

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