Carmel Rickard

The wounded

Something is seriously wrong. It’s that shining in the frosty grass. She tries to make sense of it through her neighbour’s screaming – the woman’s husband drank too much last night and now he can’t get up for work. She hears the man’s laboured breathing within his shack next door; it exactly paces the breath of her own panic as she reaches the little storage hut outside the room where she sleeps with all her family.

A padlock lies at her feet. The very padlock she bought in December from the Factory Shop. Four stars for strength and three stars for unpickability. This is the one that won’t break, Mme. Now it’s lying on the grass. She turns the corner and sees the corrugated iron door hanging open. And there’s nothing inside. Their clothes, the plates, the blankets, the food – everything gone. She hears a noise and goes closer, cautious. It’s a chicken, clucking as it pecks some mealie pits spilled by the thief when he ran off with their supper for tonight.

She sits on a tree stump outside the broken door and sees it all. Tired to the bones, aching in her heart, she turns back to the sleeping room. She winds a red scarf round her head, wraps a towel round her waist. Now she sets out for the mountain where she and her friends go when they need special help. Old Archbishop Sololo, the prophet, always tells them the right day for such a visit, but now she makes the decision for herself.

She starts along the path through the bare thorn trees and comes to the old cemetery. Some gravestones lie smashed; others crouch at crazy angles where the cattle have knocked them over. She skirts the crumbling wall and starts up the steep slope. The path is hard. The stones slip and roll under her feet; the melting frost makes even the roots treacherous.

The cattle have been up here too, with the herdsmen and the hunters. The earth is bare and she must take care not to fall. She sees snares in the fence as she walks next to it. In one, a long dead rabbit, trapped and held by the front leg, its lips drawn back from the teeth.

On either side of the path the ground splits open and she sees into the wound of the earth where the rocks gape. Red soil has washed down the slope as though the mountain weeps bloody tears.

The woman sees all these things and her ache grows stronger.

Near the top she finds the ledge where they always stop to look out over the hills, right across to the Zastron mountains, far away. She can see they are covered with snow at the top today – it seems purple from this distance. She sits, warming herself in the sun as it grows stronger and higher. A pair of bokmakieries duet in the wild olive just behind her. Bok bok bok: Treeeeeee. She feels as though she is becoming part of the mountain, as though she is a rock and the rocks are a woman carrying her.

She sees the buck long before it reaches the ledge. A female mountain reedbuck all on her own. On her left flank a scar from her own thieves in the night. Where are the other ewes? Her young? Why is she here alone?

The reedbuck tiptoes towards the flat place, nibbling what little grass she can find. She seems weary, as though she has come a long way. As though she has even further to go. The woman sits very still. She feels no urge to run away; even less to grab at the animal, despite the hungry bellies down below. She watches closely, with sympathy: another female with others dependent on her. How does she manage in the harsh cold? What does she do for food? What does she find to drink?

Mountain reedbuck need more water than other animals, but as the woman climbed the path she had seen how the cattle had destroyed the drinking places of the buck. Their massive hoofs had churned the ponds holding the last of the winter rain and they had fouled the tiny stream that runs high above the graveyard. Thirsty herself as she climbed the woman had searched for water, but she found nothing – even under mossy stones.

Then the animal’s eyes catch her own. They look steadily at each other. They have so many questions. So much they need to know. So much they have lost.

Later, a lifetime at least, the sun goes down behind the mountain. The buck moves slowly away. And as she starts the long walk home the woman feels the buck and the mountain watching her, waiting.

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Carmel Rickard

Dominee (1998)

 

I’m at the garage, filling my ancient green Renault. Then I’ll take the letter to the council secretary and that will be that. I’ll go home and start packing.

“Morning Oom Bernard.”

 “Dominee. I was looking for you. When you’ve finished, come round for a cup of coffee.”

Bernard’s office is a boarded-up corner of his second-hand furniture shop, where he keeps three chairs and an imbuia radiogram he never uses. From his desk he watches everyone who comes in: soiled mattresses are his speciality, but he also keeps odd things like a donkey boiler that doesn’t work.

“Dominee, good, you’ve come.” He points to a brown vinyl chair. “Coffee – and beskuit Elsabet made?”

Elsabet is one of my severest critics: scriba of the council, she handles complaints against the minister. She’s been busy recently, with all the calls for me to go.

We dunk and sip in silence, putting off what is to follow.

“Look Dominee, about last Sunday – ”.

“I’ll leave by month end,” I say. “I’m on my way to Dolf Jacobs to deliver the letter.”

 “Don’t get us wrong,” he makes another move. “People were excited when you arrived. We bragged that we had South Africa’s first woman dominee. We thought you ….”

Someone comes into the shop.  “Elias,” yells Bernard. “Kom!” Elias, a thin, one-eyed man who has worked with Bernard for 42 years, emerges from the workshop where he is fixing a lawnmower. Bernard returns to higher matters.

“The problem is that we want you to be like us. When you do things differently it feels as though you are saying that your way is better.”

I liked Bernard – he reminded me of interesting characters I’d met in old books. Often he spoke just like someone on a page. But this was a page I didn’t want to read.

“We brought you here. We pay you and we expect you will attend to us first. And last. Instead we see you with the Rietpoort people.”

“But Oom, you know why. I explained it all to you and the council. The Dominee from Bethulie only goes there once a month and the Rietpoort people need help.”

“Still, we don’t like to see you there so much. We feel you prefer to be with them – and that somehow we have failed.”

Failed. That’s what I wrote this morning: “I have failed.” I arrived 18 months ago, full of plans and energy. Now I was leaving, a failure.

”Did you see the Sunday night news?” he asks. Did I see the news? Everyone in South Africa saw the news.

It was Pentecost and the Bethulie minister couldn’t come, so I invited the Rietpoort people to join my congregation: 80 of them in a church built for 400.

I preached with passion: we are all one. Some walked out; many shook their heads. The little Rietpoort party huddled at the back while their white neighbours congregated for safety up front.

It got worse: TV reporters outside the church. Anna Potgieter’s face shrivelled in anger, her words venomous spittle on the reporter’s jacket. “How DEHH she bring them to our church. This so-called dominee is a witch. Weg met haar!”

“Yes Oom, I saw the news.”

“We were not happy with how Anna spoke. But many share her feelings. You feel we are no better than Anna. That we are pushing you out. And you are right. But my girlie, that doesn’t make you a failure.” I look up, interested. “You are a woman ahead of your time; we couldn’t hear you. Besides ….”

He is quiet for so long that I lose my nerve. “No, Oom, I’m at fault. I’ve been impetuous and intolerant of my congregation’s need to change slowly. But it’s hard to do nothing when others suffer.”

“Ja,” he continues, as though I haven’t said a word, “you’ve been doing the right thing, although we could not accept it from you. If you had been a man we would have said you were charitable to look after them. If you were a tannie like my wife, we’d have called it kind-hearted. But in you – we cannot stand it.” Again a pause. This time I know better than to speak.

“We hoped we could find you a fine young farmer to marry. Instead we see you choosing to spend yourself on those – kleurlinge. We don’t like that in you, so attractive, so … sexy, Dominee. A sexy woman like you belongs here, with us.”

It is a completely unexpected, bizarre absolution. I start laughing, embarrassed at first. Then through my laughter I see Bernard change from earnest suitor to scorned lecher. Liberated, I am still laughing as I drive back from giving the letter to Dolf, and start to pack.