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.