By Fiona Jamieson
I thought the Cape Doctor a glorious wind, bursting with power, defiant, indiscriminate, throwing the ocean into a bubbling turmoil and sucking up every scrap of cloud forgotten in the corners of the blue stretched sky. It swept away the old and left behind a fresh canvas upon which my life could continue to unfold. After it had gone the air was so still you could hear the ocean whispering above the distant call of the gulls.
It was one of those still hot African days with only the faintest of breezes. Even the insects seemed weary with the effort of movement. My father decided we should go for a picnic so we set off in our lumbering old Plymouth towards the vast spaces that trembled on the distant horizon. As we snaked along a ribbon of dusty road grown weary with an ancient silence, we threaded our way through a low-growing tapestry of purple heathers and sun lit proteas. Our destination was the pine forest that etched the distant skyline.
The sky whispered continuously to me of my smallness. I pressed my face up against the cool glass of the car window, offering my grudging respect to the wild grasses that clung to the roadside’s battered edge. They whipped and twisted with our passing, then sprung back into gently rippling fringes behind us.
“Look, Look! A Dassie!” my mother called out, her finger drawing my eyes to a small mound of golden rocks. I saw a flash of grey brown fur, two small eyes like litchi pips. There was a quick scrabble across the rock surface then the little creature was swallowed up in the rock’s shadow, taking with it its incomprehension and fear.
At last we reached the pine forest. Slipping from sunlight into the thick darkness of the trees it seemed we lost no heat. I felt the small muscles around my eyes relax as the glare faded and the shadows gathered us in.
The power of life was electric here, tangible, a blue force that whispered and sang among the regimented tree trunks and skipped along the woven pine needle carpet below.
As we stopped I pushed the heavy car door open and jumped out onto the forest floor, my young legs restless from inactivity. Here I could drink in the sweet perfume of life. Here was my beginning and my coming home, here was my sustenance, mother-father-comforter, this sweet earth and great sky, this my Africa. I must love her though she turn from me, burn me, starve me, for she was the soil in which I grew. I knew it then as I know it now, and will always know it. It is both my tragedy and my benediction.
I stood in that mighty forest, wearing all of my eight years and as yet untested courage, upon ground that had touched the beginning of time and I knew myself to be both everything and nothing. The song of the ancients sang in my ears and my senses were multiplied by the scent of the pines. I knew what it was in that moment to be truly happy.
“Come along, Fi!” My mother called, growing impatient and aware of the tenuous link between us and my father and brother who were already disappearing between the distant gathering of trees. We followed, with me stopping sometimes to examine a wild flower, or a mushroom erupting through a roof of thick golden pine needles. I noticed a blob of honeyed gum oozing from a tree trunk. It smelt like sweet strong pepper. I pushed my finger in to it, and when I pulled it away the imprint of my finger remained. It had felt soft and warm, but after touching it everything else I touched with my gum finger felt sticky. When I tried to suck it clean the taste was so bitter I stopped.
I hurried after my mother.
“Mummy, why did that tree bleed?”
She turned and smiled down at me. “I suppose because something cut it, just like you would bleed if you were cut.”
I thought it strange that trees should bleed, having no voice for their pain.
We came out suddenly into the light. Spread before me was a great circle of silver, a bowl of sparkling liquid swaying gently, spattered with light where it rose to the sun pinned high above us. We had reached the lake.
“Let’s sit over here in the shade.” My mother had spread our tattered grey picnic blanket beneath a thick stemmed pine. I fell upon it, grateful for the shade. The blanket felt warm and smelt of home. The pine needles crackled as I moved, some managing to pierce the thick felt with their narrow golden blades, pricking my soft skin.
My father had already vanished. He always did. His affair with nature was intimate and private. There were times when he would share with us some fragment of botanical folklore, or return with evidence of a rare example of the local vegetation, but most often he went off alone.
I did not notice the figure until it moved. The man’s skin was of the same deep rich colour as the wood of the tree trunk and as his darkness split away from it, he stumbled toward me. His eyes were filled with terror and confusion. He reached out a pink-bellied hand to me, dumb and infinitely afraid.
“Mum!” I shouted in panic as I watched him sink in slow motion onto the porcupine floor. His eyes reminded me of the Dassie, but he did not scamper away.
My mother hurried over to where the man lay. She examined him carefully, feeling his pulse and looking into his eyes. His breathing sounded like the South East wind slipping through a hole in our garage roof, a heavy whistle that kept repeating in a steady rhythm.
Suddenly my mother drew in her breath, as he slid forward on to his face.
“Mum, what is it?” I tugged at her skirt. Something felt wrong. Fear and curiosity bubbled inside me.
Then I saw the knife. The blade was buried deep within him and the black plastic handle was an obscene protuberance in the small of his back. Like a halo about the wound a darker circle spread out across the faded blue shirt he wore.
“Go and call your brother” said my mother sharply, turning me away. “Tell him to find your father quickly!”
We gathered our things together as we waited, she constantly watching the slow breathing man as he lay unmoving on the pine needle carpet.
“Shouldn’t we take out the knife, Mummy?”
“No, darling. At the moment the knife is acting like a plug. It is far better to leave it there.” In the wide nothingness of the African veldt, the man has stumbled by chance into a qualified nurse – and a woman of infinite compassion.
She bent over the man once more and felt his pulse. “Give me the blanket, Fi” she called out. Taking it again from the bag in which we had packed it, I handed it to her. She opened it out and gently laid it across his back, tender as a mother with a sleeping infant.
At last my brother returned with my father, and between them they half-walked half-carried the wounded man to our car. The stain on his shirt had grown larger. They laid him across the back seat and mother covered him once more with the blanket. Getting behind the steering wheel, she said, “You two will have to sit in front with Daddy.” Mother always did the driving.
We scrambled in on top of our father, and the car lurched forward. We passed from the darkness of the forest back into the sharp glare of an African noon. “We can’t take him to the General,” my mother said with a frown. “They won’t take a black man there, even if he is dying! We’ll have to take him to Langa”
“Bloody insanity!” my father spoke with impotent passion.
Entering the hospital doors I felt a strange coldness spread through me, an unnamed fear asking for admittance at the places from which I had shut it out in the ancient wisdom of my infancy. I began to know for the first time then my true inheritance, a sentient being aware of its own mortality, haunted with the knowledge of a moral account that must be settled at the moment of our death. “Our father, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death”.
My mother rustled down the wide corridor, comfortable in the confidence of knowing her environment. “Sister!” they called out to her in their surprise. “But it is Sunday!” My mother indicated the wounded man behind her, monk like in our grey blanket, supported by my father’s strength. The nurses came forward, dark and eager, took him gently and looked about for a trolley.
“There is a knife in his back, so lay him on his stomach” my mother ordered briskly, watching the nurses as they manoeuvred him on to the trolley.
We were on the same level now, the dark man and I. His white eyes were fixed on mine and I sensed the fear in him, like a dog at his throat. I put my hand forward to touch his where it lay on the cold green canvas of the trolley. His fingers closed about mine. I thought of the forest, seeing his brown hand, the green canvas, my skin like pale honeyed sunlight. I was reminded again of the Dassie on the warm stone, terrified at the approach of the unknown. There in the veldt danger was expected, accepted, life was recycled without regret. Here there were many questions, some without answers, some answers too awful to be spoken.
I felt the gentle pressure of my mother’s hand on my neck. “Come along, sweetheart, we can go now.”
“Will he be alright?” I thought the question without asking it although I desperately wanted to know. I wanted everything to be alright again. I wanted my mother to reproduce the conventional assurances but this new learning in me made me suspect the answer. It might be another of the word screens grown-ups used to hide the great darkness
Instead I said, “What about the blanket?”
“We’ll let him keep that, shall we?”
I looked again at the man. His eyes had closed and his grasp on my hand had loosened. I looked around me at the bare walls mirrored with thick enamel paint like sour cream and at the silver hardness of the trolleys ranged along the corridor edges as if washed up by some receding tide. I had been in hospitals before. They were not like this. There were dark people everywhere, sitting on the cold floor, lying on the trolleys, leaning up against the walls. The thick salt smell was strong in my nostrils. I could not see a blanket anywhere except for ours. It was dark red in patches where the man’s blood had seeped from the knife wound in his back.
I knew then with some primeval instinct that an invisible line had been drawn between myself and the place in which I stood. I could neither see it nor understand why it should exist, but I knew as I breathed in that sea of dark faces, my white skin glowing like a cloak of frozen tears, that I was of another world.
Understanding began many years later, but the sadness began then, and the guilt. They both began on that day, the day we gave away the old grey blanket.