Authors: Isla Morley
“The madam was very good to me,” Beauty concludes.
“Yes, and you were very good to her. Actually, to all of us.” She shakes her head and I ask, “Tell me, do you still throw the bones?”
“Oh no, I cannot see where they land!” She laughs. “No, but I am teaching the one over there.” She flicks her head to where the niece is listening at the door. “She is going to be a better
than me one of these days.”
Our tea gone, the rusks eaten, the reminiscing over, there seems nothing more to say. Beauty seems to recede, as though retrieving the memories has been a physically challenging act. If Delia asks, I will tell
her it was a pleasant visit. I will not tell her I had hoped for something more, for Beauty to have somehow been the door through which I could revisit the last summer of my youth. I get up and carefully scoop the crumbs from my lap into my hand and dust them into the mug.
“I should be getting back and let you get your rest,” I announce.
“Be a good girl and hand me my knitting,” she says, pointing to the box in the corner. I can’t be sure, but when I lean over to pick up the ball of yarn, protruding from it appears to be the very same knitting needles my grandmother once bought for her. These same needles that had paused when my father insulted Beauty on the porch all those years ago. Suddenly I am breathless with shame at the memory of it.
“Beauty,” I say, placing the bundle on her lap, “I am so sorry for how he treated you.” And she knows exactly to whom I am referring.
“I am sorry for you,
, and your mother.” She feels for the needles, and runs her hand over the stitches as though she were stroking a cat. “He was a bad man.”
“Yes, he was. My mother should have left him. I could never understand why she didn’t; why she left me and not him. Your children are your blood. You will do anything for them, even die for them, don’t you think?”
“You think your mother was weak. But your mother was a warrior, a clever warrior.” Slowly, deliberately, she spears the row of stitches with the point of one needle and winds the yarn around the other as if to throttle it. “The Boers were stupid; they always thought it was the
, Shaka’s spear, they needed to be afraid of,” she continues.
Vaguely I recall a ninth-grade history lesson on the Anglo-Zulu War, but its relevance is lost on me now. “I don’t see what this has to do with my mother.”
Beauty nods to herself. “Your mother knew what the
knew: the Boer cannot fight what he does not see.”
“I’m sorry.” I frown. “I’m still not following you.”
“Your father was a Boer,
,” she says, looking up, “and your mother fed him from the tip of Shaka’s spear.”
The niece, who has participated in the conversation thus far only by casting her shadow from the doorway, interjects harshly. “
, Ma!” Although I do not understand what she goes on to say, the cautionary tone is unmistakable.
Beauty nods slowly. “Nontlé is telling me it is getting late, and my tongue is doing too much running. I am sorry. It is time for you to go.”
But Beauty has opened the door, has given me a look at a woman I barely recognize. “Beauty, please! Go on!” Around her wrist I wind my fingers as though she were a stubborn child I could drag to a place she does not wish to go. Pulsing from her wrist, through the vise of my hand, comes a tremor, shaking my memories like teacups from a toppling hutch.
“I am an old woman now. It has been many, many rains since I was living at Sunup; they have washed away my memories.”
“That’s not true! You
remember! Tell me! Tell me what you know about my mother that I don’t know. She talked to you; I saw it, every time she came to the farm. You and she had secrets.” Flashing in my mind is the money in the envelope my mother set aside for Beauty, the tins she said were for her nerves, the vial in the bread box. “What was she doing with that stuff you gave her? Was she getting high? Was my father getting high?” and as I say it comes the urge to scrub the idea, the way my mother had scrubbed my hands at the faucet behind the
. The way you scrub to get off germs, or blood. Or poison.
I gasp at the realization. “It was poison, wasn’t it?” Beauty does not answer. “Wasn’t it!” On the tip of Shaka’s spear.
“It is not right to disturb the dead for their secrets,
, and sometimes it is better to leave the past behind us.”
“I am not an
anymore, Beauty! She was my mother, he was my father, and I have a right to know!” This time I look at the niece. “Tell her! Tell her I have a right to know!”
After a long pause, Beauty takes a deep breath. “She came to the farm that day, you and her, and she was very afraid. But not like a hyena is afraid; more like a lion who has to protect her cubs. Boss Harry had
murder on his breath, she told the madam; she said he would come for her, and for you. It was the madam’s idea to telephone the police, but Miss Louise went pale like a snake belly. Men with uniforms think a good beating is the best way to teach someone a lesson, especially wives who they think are slow to learn. No, Miss Louise said she couldn’t have the policemen come; she was going to think of another way. Your mother came to my door after the roosters had gone to bed. She said to me, ‘I am going to kill him, Beauty; I am going to kill him before he kills us.’ I could see only a mother lion on my doorstep, nothing else. ‘I am going to need your help,’ she said. In my tradition, when a lion comes to your door, you give it what it wants.”
trained in the way of the ancestors, Beauty tells me how she offered a remedy as ancient as the hills from which its ingredients were gathered. “I was happy to help Miss Louise, so she and you could be safe.” Her words slide around in my head like tumblers on a ship captain’s table, and a swell of nausea rocks my stomach.
“But he died of kidney and liver failure,” I wanly protest, even while recalling the pestle and mortar on the kitchen counter, Beauty’s medicine pouch. “The doctors would have known if he had been poisoned.”
She shakes her head no. “
is a very clever little plant. It can fool the white man’s doctors.” Looking at Nontlé as though this were part of her required coursework, she says, “The only difference between medicine and poison is portion.”
As Beauty explains it, the dose was meant to be administered every day in incremental drops at each meal. After a two-month diet of the deadly sap, my father’s renal system would shut down in such a way as to mimic the results of a lifelong affair with the bottle.
“But it took longer than that,” I say, trying to pick my way through the ruins of memories.
“I told Miss Louise, ‘Leave the girl here; do not take her home with you; I have seen too many people eating from the dish meant for the devil.’ But she missed you so much. She came to visit, but every time she did, your father had days to get better.” Beauty’s voice becomes softer; her eyelids close as though she is reliving an awful decision. “So
, it was my fault she left you; it was me who told her not to come anymore, not until the
had done its job.”
“That’s why she brought him to the farm that day . . . so she could see me and still give him the poison.”
She nods, and sighs. “I should have killed him myself that night.”
“The night you were fighting with Stompie?”
! He needed to be whipped for all the money he took from me. But it was your father I wanted to kill, coming to the farm, bringing all his sick ways.”
“And so when my mother ran to the police van and you said, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’—”
She nods again. “I was telling her where I kept the poison so she could finish the job.”
The tears finally come.
You will do anything for your children, even die for them
MY MOTHER DIED not even a handful of months after she buried my father. Standing between my grandmother and Rhiaan at her funeral, I felt like a stranger, unable to give the mourners who greeted me the show they expected. How could I tell them that I had been grieving my mother’s absence for years? How could I tell them it was not comfort I was seeking, but a culprit, someone to blame for her death?
I would not have recognized the man who, on the other end of the phone, had made my mother laugh all those years ago. He might have shaken my hand anonymously and slipped by into the broad African daylight had it not been for his remark.
“My condolences to you, young lady,” he said. “You and your brother were the world to her, you know.” Quietly then, as an afterthought, he added, “And your mother was the world to me.” Suddenly I saw my mother as I had never before seen her, as the beautiful pirouetting axis upon which someone else’s world had rotated. Someone whose parting had caused the creases of sorrow on his brow, who had
made his gray eyes thoroughly rheumy with grief but who could nevertheless see her more clearly than I ever could.
My mother’s lover was not at all how I imagined him to be. He ought to have been taller than this docile man, ought to have been broad-shouldered and dark-haired like the leading men of paperback romances. He ought to have been a man whose stature would have been a brash stand-up to my father’s burly frame. Instead, the man with the gentle handshake and soft voice was sketched in pastels. He was gone before I could say anything in reply. Later, at the cemetery, when I found my brother reading the headstones of my mother’s earthly neighbors, I asked him about the pallid man with the cane.
“Professor Colin Wellsley, my high school English teacher,” he said.
“He’s the one you dedicated the anthology to!” I suddenly realized, recalling the single line of inscription on the first page of my brother’s debut book.
“That’s right. In many ways, he became a surrogate father to me,” Rhiaan added.
“But he’s the one Mom had an affair with,” I continued, and Rhiaan stared at me as though watching a movie rewind itself.
“Yes,” he said sadly, and returned to the task of reading the headstones. “I know.”
The mourners gathered in the small living room of our old house, around side tables on which Auntie Muriel and Mrs. Folliett had set trays of sandwiches and cream puffs and meatballs on toothpicks. Their mouths, buttoned up earlier in church, now flapped in the breeze of clichés. I retreated to my old bedroom, after hearing gossip passed like napkins: “Did you hear they have to sell the house just to pay off the debts? The children aren’t going to inherit a dime!”
The room was still the same except for my mother’s jar of cold cream on the bedside table and a picture frame serving as a paperweight for a thrift-store novel. The photograph was of Rhiaan and me at the Christmas table, both with lopsided grins and paper crowns. I didn’t even remember the picture being taken.
It was my mother’s scent that billowed out of the closet when I slid open the door. Among a few of my abandoned school uniforms were
her dresses and coats, a hanger filled with shoes—all of them new. I searched the shelves for her old clothes, but all I found were more new clothes: slips still with price tags, sweet-sixteen lingerie, and a nightie a bride might wear.
People said it was such a shame; they said wasn’t it just like life that my mother died so soon after my father. It’s often the case, they said; one goes, and the other can’t seem to find a way to go on. What rot! If her new clothes and the freshly papered walls were anything to go by, it was obvious my mother had found a way. She had found a way with Professor Wellsley, Mr. No-One-Friend.
I sat down at the desk in front of the window that blinked out at the apricot tree, the place where first Mrs. Folliett, then the paramedics, found my mother the day she died. Perhaps she had sat down to write a letter to me or Rhiaan, or perhaps she had just sat down to watch the tree, the way I had done many times before.
The tree had taught me about life, death, and resurrection better than any Sunday school class. After a season of endlessly producing fruit, it would lose all its leaves, and by the time the fluorescent lights stayed on almost all day it was just a bare rack. Blackened from the rain, its witchy branches would scrape against my window as if begging to be let in. Most days I wanted to scratch back, “It’s no warmer in here!” And then, in spring, when I thought I could bear the goblin days no more, I would look out and see tiny pink-brown buds covering the tree. They would appear overnight, and although they did little to alter the mien of the broomstick tree, those buds promised sunshine and good cheer long before I saw them with my own eyes. A dozen winters I spent in that bedroom waiting for the buds, and always they came. If someone had to ask me to define faith, “the old apricot tree” is what I would say. If people wanted something to talk about, it should have been how my mother died when the tree was covered in blossoms.