By - Silke Heiss

“No worst, there is none.”
- Gerald Manley Hopkins

Aubrey Taylor was laid off. They were very sorry. They gave him a ‘golden handshake’.  But no reward, however, golden, can counteract the force, or the feeling, of rejection. In any case, the golden handshake was a misnomer. It amounted to three months’ pay. Aubrey Taylor had only been a driver.

His wife was Logan. She was a housekeeper for Professor Searle from the university. For more than two years now. It was a good position, which they could not now afford to lose. ‘They’ included the children, Kane and Rosabel, who were both at primary school.

The family was initially somewhat uplifted, in spirit at least, despite the new insecurity in their lives. Aubrey knew he was unwanted, not needed – a realisation which naturally smarted. But at the same time it provided him with an opportunity to spend hours, indeed, days (which quickly turned into weeks and months) with his children.

Logan Taylor was delighted, for the children thrived. New loves were growing from the family misfortune. They could not afford fish ‘n chips from the takeaway anymore; and they had meat only every other week now; and they saw no immediate way of replacing Kane’s shoes, out of which his feet were popping. But Kane was perfectly able to play soccer with his dad in bare feet on the empty, windswept sports field. In fact, he was even proud of his toughness. And instead of buying Rosie rings and ribbons, Daddy told her bible stories like Noah and the flood, or Joseph’s dreams - which gives you wealth far greater than plastic jewellery, my child. So you see.

When they sat down round the curried bean casserole at the supper table and held hands to sing –

Thank you Father,
Thank you Mother,
For our food, for our food,
And our many blessings, and our many blessings,
Amen, Amen –

Logan would look significantly at her family. Especially as she uttered the words ‘our many blessings’.

It was Aubrey, of course, who had insisted on introducing the ‘Mother’ into the singing of grace. It was an act for which Logan knew she ought to be grateful, even though she did not quite comprehend it. She instinctively avoided questioning Aubrey’s decisions. But God was not female. Female power as Logan imagined it, no, knew it to be, was discreet. A person can feel in the body how it must be, although it can’t finally be said. There was something overall upside down with actually mentioning it, her, the ‘Mother’ (for of course they weren’t Catholics). It was like putting the earth on top of the sky or something. But even so, Logan took Aubrey’s words in good humour. He wanted to show his love. To instruct his children to honour their mom. Her hands had prepared the food, which had been purchased with money she had earned. She could not deny that. But all by the will of the Lord, let her not forget.

Sometimes, she was afraid that she might forget. That she might unbind herself quite suddenly, or be unbound. And be flung far, far from the fold. Yes, it made her quite uncomfortable, she thought as she spooned steaming spinach and sweet potatoes onto their plates, to find her designation – ‘Mother’ – in such close conjunction with the Name of Heaven. It was – well, not that the word ‘sacrilegious’ entered her head, but maybe it came close. At the same time, Logan found herself unable to accuse her kind and considerate husband.

How exactly it happened it is not possible to tell. But as the months went by and Aubrey became increasingly maternal, or womanly – doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, making his wife breakfast and cups of tea (even over weekends) – so Logan found her attitude towards her husband changing. She knew, of course, that times had changed drastically everywhere already - Kane and Rosabel’s school curriculum did not distinguish between man and woman. The old ways, according to which Logan and Aubrey had set up their home and family, had long dissolved. One could see men pushing prams these days and taking their children to the public library.

Certainly Logan was confused. She experienced irritation with the fact that Aubrey was encroaching onto what she considered her territory. In his way, moreover, which was less complete, than hers. More cavalier. When sweeping, for example, he failed to lift the chairs, no matter how often she suggested that this should be done. When washing dishes, the kitchen surfaces, sometimes even the dishes themselves, would remain sticky, unclean. The thought or the realisation that her husband was ‘not much good’ at what he did worked like a slow releasing poison on Logan’s consciousness. ‘That’s why they sacked him’, she found herself thinking. Immediately she squeezed her eyes shut to block out the thought and invoke forgiveness.

Logan searched for compassion in herself as she noticed that Aubrey’s time with the kids seemed to result in things lying all over the house. It was a big mess, to be truthful. But they did have a fantastic time together and both Kane’s as well as Rosabel’s teachers had said how they’d noticed a difference: the children were actually excelling – excelling said Mrs Goodall – at their reading. Was Logan spending more quality time with them?

“No, it’s my husband to be honest. He’s very devout, you know, and well he lost his job. Now for the time being he reads the Bible with them every day without fail. He’s got all that time you see.”
“Oh? Right. Well – how lucky you are. That is so good having a husband who makes the best of a bad situation!”
“It is good. He’s a good father,” admitted Logan, worrying about the fact that she could not quite smile.

But now who can put a price on excellence? Logan must not be petty. Who thinks of tidying while working, while playing?

So the mother came home in the afternoons, cooked, tidied, washed, and then told bedtime stories. For she did not wish to grow distant from the kids. Once she started snoring, they said, while she was reading to them. She just nodded off for a second. Oh my good Lord, oh my! The children laughed uproariously. Logan laughed with them. While Aubrey read the Bible quietly to himself. He was devoted. They must not lose hope.

But when Logan came out of the children’s room (thank the good Lord they still had the house) and saw him there beside the shaded lamp, with the picture of his God-fearing parents behind him, she not so much thought as realised. That here was – no, she must be honest – here was an unattractive, a bloody ugly man. His smile resembled a failed snarl. And that’s what he was in reality doing – snarling at her, while pretending to smile!

Logan caught herself. She sighed. She bent to pick up from the floor and then proceeded to fold her husband’s jersey. She knew what she was doing. Nor could she help it, though God preserve her. She had held truthfulness at bay for long enough, now it pressed through. What was in her hands was not Aubrey’s jersey. That is to say, it seemed to be, but it was not. It smelt exactly, but exactly like the toiletries used by her employer, Hugh Searle. Unfortunately, the sensation roused her terribly. She breathed in deeply this strange escape come over her. It provided such relief. Oh my Lord, forgive me.

She was convinced that God had decided to teach her a lesson. Because she had presumed to be intimate in the daily prayers, He had come to earth - or chosen for a time at least to inhabit the body of Professor Searle. Logan did not want to be with Aubrey: she felt that disinclination like a razor blade in her heart. She wanted to be Mrs Searle. And it was all Aubrey’s doing, that she wanted to be the wife of God.

“What’s wrong?” asked Aubrey.
She looked at him, filled with love and guilt.
“I am tired,” she said truthfully. “I am very tired.”

Professor Searle was not at home, most of the time. Like a real man. Out hunting for the bucks. That’s crude thoughts maybe, but let us call a spade a spade. Logan did the professor’s laundry and the ironing. She even ironed his sheets. That’s really quite, quite unnecessary, said Professor Searle, but Logan happily, stubbornly ignored him. God is proud of you for those extra little bits. She vacuumed the carpets and washed the floor. She kept the bathroom spotless, and dusted with devotion the shelves with their reading and so much music. Professor Searle had records and often their covers were out and Logan would see to her surprise (which she never got over) photographs of sloppily-dressed, barefoot men with long hair like real derelicts or hippies even. She told herself it was cultural difference; certainly Hugh Searle was always presentable. Even though he wore mostly denims, he always looked smart. One record cover showed a drawing of a bird that in its large claws carried a naked woman with huge breasts. Well, Logan made allowances for the European heritage about which she supposed she was largely ignorant, and everybody was entitled to their privacy. That had to be the professional housekeeper’s slogan, after all. And so Logan kept that bird with its captured woman absolutely private, naturally. But when on one occasion the CD rack toppled while she was cleaning, and fifty odd CDs clattered out, and she picked them up and saw on the case of one of them a host, a photograph, of nude women – a rainbow of women one would have to call that – all with their breasts and thighs exposed and pouting very suggestively – then Logan did at once ask for forgiveness on Professor Searle’s behalf. Just in case. Luckily he now also had Beethoven and all those very highly thought of, which was his saving grace as far as Logan could tell.

Logan kept Hugh Searle’s fridge and cupboards stocked with sliced bread, cheese crackers, canned peaches, and soup packs, and during the week cooked suppers that would wait for him in the microwave oven. It was an easy job, in a way. Most days she knocked off at lunchtime. She received sufficient pay not to have to look for work elsewhere.

Professor Searle liked grey, white, black, beige and brown. Aubrey Taylor, on the other hand, liked bold reds and yellows. Blue, pink, green.

“It’s the African in you,” his wife would say. There would be a mixture of tenderness and criticism in her voice. Having African in one was nothing to be ashamed of. She herself, too … But it was a burden nonetheless. The burden of too much light, or maybe even love, that cast a sharp, black shadow. Aubrey was so loving. It burnt into Logan, this love, this sunny warmth of his. For somewhere in Logan’s heart, or head, there was a search for something that was cold and grey. An inarticulate yearning for, or perhaps it was only a phantasm of, the obscure. An imagined mistiness, the thought of eternal nights such as Kane was being taught exist at both the poles in winter-time.

Logan put down the photograph of Professor Searle in front of Cambridge University. Standing there in the northerly light with a grey-haired gentleman friend. She passed the duster over the glass again to remove her fingerprint.

He had no wife. He had two girls, whose passport-size photos were in his study. There was a picture of them as young women in skiing gear, held up by a doughnut-shaped magnet on the fridge. The wife was nowhere to be seen. Had it perhaps been a nasty divorce? If dead, would she not be commemorated in photographs? Perhaps it was worse than divorce? Was it Abomination? Logan’s heart expanded with pity and love for Professor Searle. Dear almighty God, I  humbly ask that you give Hugh Searle all strength and courage. Forgive his sins and those of them around him that might spoil his life and cause him to suffer. Thank you, Lord, thank you. I am your humble servant Logan Taylor.

For herself, Logan Taylor often forgot to pray these days. She clearly remembered saying the words ‘for richer, for poorer’. Marriage is an institution that ought to endure. The suffering it brings with it is unavoidable. Logan had not gone blindly into her marriage. Her parents’ example had taught her not to expect bliss or salvation of any sort.

She knew that her feelings were wicked. They were cold and delicious. The thought of abandoning Aubrey and declaring her eternal devotion to Professor Searle seemed tempting to a degree beyond any she had known. She felt invincible, young, excited about life, was sure she had grown slenderer and more supple during the past year of employ with the soft-spoken, distinguished professor. Of course she ate less under the circumstances. It was terribly wrong. Bad for the family. The thought of her children, more even than Aubrey, put up a wall to beat back her fantasies. Her train-friend, Denise, to whom she partially confessed the illicit stirrings, looked at her sceptically through narrowed eyes. A mirthless smile played on her lips.

“You’re too old for that sort of thing,” Denise said. “Best you hand in your notice,” she advised.

Logan felt a jab in her innards as she imagined asking her employer for a reference. The train stopped. Denise moved closer to Logan as the old Munter squeezed in beside them, breathing phlegmmily.

“They’s coming,” he sighed, “for justice.”

He looked significantly at Logan. There was nothing unusual in that. Munter permanently looked significantly. But today, Logan noticed the significance. She noticed it in her culpable heart.

“I’s now somebody who never did harm anybody,” declaimed the ragged man. “Ask anybody. Never, no. But I point out – “

Munter stretched out his arm and swivelled it slowly in a semi-circle, like a torch-beam or searchlight, “I point out the wrong that people does to one another. Woman,” he declared looking straight at Logan, “you must obey your husband.”

“Only when you feel like it,” a young woman with electric blue toe-nails, sitting opposite them, countered. She enunciated the words very beautifully. Obviously private school. The train chuckled with its passengers.

Munter, however, frowned and wagged his thick, dirty finger in the young woman’s direction.
“It must have somebody,” he said, “what points out. That’s me. Ekke. I’m that man.”

The young woman smirked indulgently, shook her head slightly, and abdicated by craning her beautiful neck to look out of the window. They were all beneath her, behind her, irrelevant to her. They were captives of the past, enduring their stuckness, their griminess, while she was new and fresh with a platter-full of gleaming options before her. Please, good Lord, may you stand by me.

Munter retracted his searchlight and patted his breast with satisfaction. Fellow-travellers regarded him tolerantly in his rags and worn boots. Some people murmured agreement, or approval. The woman with the electric blue nails looked on disbelievingly, smiling and shaking her lovely African hairdo from time to time, always returning to the window, the far sky or horizon out there. Logan stared at the toe-nails like miniature ice-floes, so cold and bright and unnatural were they.

“It’s drugs,” said a man in oilskins. “Drugs. And you forget all what you’ve learnt in the Bible.”

He took a small, raggedy New Testament out of his breast pocket and began to read aloud from Revelations. Munter began to argue. They argued without disagreeing until a buxom female security guard put him off the train at Heathfield, where Logan got off as well.

“And there was war in heaven. Mark my words, it’s war,” cried Munter on the platform.

The walk home took twenty-five minutes. She entered the house and stumbled over Aubrey’s shoes at the front door. She managed to steady herself, but her leg hurt from the jolt, it felt a bit out of joint. Then she sounded like a fishwife to her own ears. Somewhere inside her there was an elegant soul, swept clean, snow white. She felt sure of that. But the circumstances of her life would not allow it. This was her home, her life. She tidied, cleaned as much as she could, and cooked. Aubrey supervised the children’s bath, that they didn’t use too much water or get cold sitting there too long. She was grateful for that. It was more than most husbands she knew of would do. He was progressive, so democratic, he did always ask her opinion, and had he ever put her down? The answer must be no. She did not need to obey him, he was so considerate.

From the red kitchen Logan, limping slightly, brought the bobotie through to the yellow lounge. She longed somehow to be able to extinguish these colours. Wished for a snow to befall them in a calm ice age of sleep, where things might rest for a while before re-awakening. She longed for the greys and browns. She longed for the emptiness of her work.

Logan brought the turmeric-yellow meal to the table in its azure ocean. Nobody was there. The children must be playing or something, were they outside now after their bath?! Aubrey was quiet upstairs. Quiet and temporarily unavailable.

Logan set down the casserole dish. She thought she might explode, or implode. One or the other. She went upstairs, into the bedroom, where she found Aubrey reading the Bible.

She said, “I want a divorce.”

She said it right out of the blue, without thinking. She had not even had the thought, in fact. She was in a state of complete surprise at herself. And Aubrey stared at her with his pale green eyes. His startled gaze quickly became hateful. How quick his understanding was now! Logan felt an urge to walk out of the house immediately, that seemed to be the most fitting thing to do. But at that hour the streets were dangerous. Logan feared she might be mugged, or worse, most likely worse.

Aubrey said nothing at first. His wife hesitated at the door. What did it matter that he was holding, or reading, or relying on the Bible? He had not found work in five months! And then the thought of her own infidelity to God smote Logan, and Aubrey saw it, and then her words got right under his skin.

“Why don’t you go then?” he asked bitterly. “Go!”

The wife stared at the husband. It was her turn to be startled. When last had he summoned this amount of energy? When last had he exclaimed? Now he even rose, and was attempting to wave her out of the room, pushing her out with his puffed chest without touching her. He had never before been so immense, she was sure. Close now, he stared at her. His yellow nostrils flared, his nose was huge with in- and exhalations, his healthy teeth (his pride) were bared in what had turned, over the months, into a genuine snarl. He was expending himself in ways unrevealed till now.

“You don’t respect me,” he hissed, “and you don’t love me.”
All true. Her failure as a wife.

Downstairs the hungry children were calling. Logan noticed the Bible lying on the bed. What was it doing there? Where was God, if He was in there? Made out of paper or what?

“No,” cried Logan, “I don’t love you and may the Lord forgive me.”
Then Aubrey laughed an evil laugh.
“The Lord!” he said sarcastically. “What know you about the Lord?”

So the Devil had arrived. She had invoked him, had she not? He raised his hand and struck the housekeeper on her cheek. Electrified with shock, she dared to look at him outraged, although ice-cold with fear. She knew she was tempting him to further violence, which she would endure. Because it proved something. (What?)

He grabbed her arm and yanked her from the doorway, hurled her onto the bed, and when she pulled her knees towards her to deter his blows by kicking, he deftly outmanoeuvred the random thrusts of her stockinged feet, from which Mr Price’s slippers had flown in arcs, and hit her hard on her thigh. Then, in the interim of her shock, he hit her in the face again, as if he knew exactly what to do. She had not seen him so sure of himself, nor so directed. But he must stop. The children had come into the doorway and stood crying. Then Kane ran into Aubrey and began hitting him, shouting,

“Don’t hit Mommy! Daddy, don’t hit Mommy!”
While Rosabel screeched unbearably, “Kane! Kane!”

Kane was crying, choking on incomprehensible words. Aubrey abruptly accepted defeat and slunk out. Logan straightened her skirt, gathered her slippers, patted down her hair, took a child in each arm as she sat on the edge of the bed, and told them,

“It’s all right.”

Kane was more upset than Rosabel. He took his time calming down. Then they all blew their noses. When Logan fetched Aubrey from the sofa (there was no other place to hide), he said, “I am ashamed.”
So she said, “It doesn’t matter.”
To which he replied, “I love you. I don’t want to be like that, to do what I did. I love you Logan. What you said hurt me so deep inside.”

It was as if he’d thrown a stone at her, into her burning face.

It was the first time in months that she had had to work in Professor Searle’s presence. It was nerve-wracking, exhilarating and disturbing. She felt him, in his jersey with the reindeers and snowflakes, watching her, but whenever she looked up he would be moving away, concerned with things other than her working self. She felt embarrassed for his sake. When lunchtime arrived, Logan sat down at the fancy kitchen counter, on the barstool, about to have her egg on toast, when Professor Searle entered again.

“Sit down. Sit down,” he said, because she had made to rise.

It was terrible. Swallowing her food in a gulp, she could see that she did not actually see the man, who appeared to be shifting. He did not sit down. So she got up again and was glad that he left it at that

“Logan,” began Professor Searle, “I do not want to surprise you. I mean – .“ He stopped and seemed to think. She wanted to speak for him, he seemed so desperate. The silence was eternal. What might he be looking for to say to her, oh Lord? Logan noticed that her mouth was slightly open. She closed it. The professor looked at her mouth. So Logan bowed her head, to spare him the embarrassment.

“I shall be staying in this flat for two more months, till the end of the semester. Then I am moving to Mexico. Permanently. I intend giving up this place. Logan. I have valued your service very much. I am sure I shall not find another housekeeper – “

The professor studied her at his leisure. Logan was swirling in the eddy of this awful moment, this closeness breaking on the edge of closure, of an end. It was the end of Logan’s life. It was the end of the Taylor family, her children. She would never find another position. She was too old, too disturbed. She had not the energy. She could not look up, for fear that he might detect the horror and despair in her face.

The professor now put his hand on her shoulder, briefly. It might have been boiling water. She had to endure it.

“A housekeeper as reliable,” said the professor, and then, “as discreet” – that was the word he had searched for in his mind full of torchbeams and searchlights, and found – “as you, Logan. I am sure you will have no trouble in finding secure alternative employment. Thank you, Logan. I wish you the best of luck. I shall naturally pay you the pension arising out of your service to me. It’s nothing much, of course, nothing to rely on. You have a husband, isn’t that so, Logan? And two children, was it?”

Logan nodded vacantly.
“I am sorry if I caught you by surprise,” said he, “I had intended to avoid that.”
Logan nodded. “God bless,” she said.
Professor Searle looked briefly puzzled.
Then, “Yes, of course, thank you,” he said, and maybe smiled a little as he looked up. There was a pause. Then he went out of the kitchen. Soon after, he went out of the flat, and Logan Taylor thought that snow must have begun to fall, at last, onto her hot soul.

She was cooling or softened now towards her husband, although his efforts at finding a job remained unsuccessful. She sent him out these days onto the street, and occasionally he got odd-jobs varnishing window frames and doors, or helping to carry some load, or cutting up a dead tree in someone’s garden for R80.00 plus food. Frequently, though, he came back empty-handed and told Logan how the other unemployed, desperate men at the roadsides would leap uninvited into cars and onto bakkies, hectoring salvation, forcing their luck. Aubrey did not, could not belong with those hard, bitter men. He was no longer young (although there were men much older than Aubrey, too, of course, cast off and useless now, may the Lord protect us all); he could not smile as readily or as audaciously as they. For the Hand of God was in all this, and if He shall choose to push my face into the dust, who am I to presume to cast His Greatness off? A vain liberation that would be. Yet the return home to the children watching television, their lack of spark, their boredom and quarrelsomeness, served further to indict. Aubrey would flee upstairs as if afraid of contaminating them with his lifeless self.

Logan found that she forgot to pray or, when she did, that she begged wretchedly for deliverance, salvation and protection. God had never felt so far away. Shame prevented her from confiding in the pastor, and Sundays she sat with her family, choking back tears of culpability when they sang, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to War’. Then came the inertia in the form of headaches, and she actually stopped going, begging Aubrey would he pray for her please? At home alone her spirit was vagrant, without abode. Although with the greyness of her mood came then also an unexpected calm. Is that what she had been looking for – this tranquil lifelessness, this sleep? Every time her family returned from church, they had to wake her up and she had not even washed or dressed yet.

But this must change! Logan was a forward-looking woman. It was neither permissible nor possible to be anything else. After almost two months’ grief and somnambulence, during her final week of employ with her heartbreaker (the news of his departure had been welcomed by Denise – ‘God is looking after you’) – during that week of April Logan bought a box of rainbow tissues and some fine, green plastic-coated garden wire from the hardware store. In the evenings, she sat with Kane and Rosabel, ignoring silent Aubrey. They made two hundred soft, pastel coloured tissue flowers with wire stems in two weeks. Now that’s a better use for tissues that crying and blowing your nose into them, isn’t it? Logan bought a pink plastic bucket and put the tissue blooms inside.

The tissues and the wire together had cost R 40.00, the bucket R15.00. If she sold the flowers at R1.00 apiece, she would make a profit of R 145.00, not counting labour – “which you can’t count, because it is a gift to God”, said Logan to her children. Logan was repenting. And she had sufficient wire over for another two hundred flowers, once (if) these sold. She told Denise what she had done, and Denise looked at her pityingly and said that a person must be strong. Denise’s husband worked for an insurance company. He was a clerk, who was very clever with his figures. It is a problem when a person is not clever with his figures. Although neither Aubrey nor Logan were now ‘illiterate’, Good God no. Look at how Aubrey read the Bible and let Denise’s husband do that night after night without fail. Yes, Logan’s thoughts were on the right track again, in the right place.

But still, on Logan’s last day in the Rosebank flat, she chose a white flower from among her bucket of freshly made blooms. Rosabel had had the good idea of sprinkling on just a teensy bit of glitter which clung beautifully to the delicate petals. Logan was not able to hand the flower over personally to the professor as she had fantasized she would. Evidently, he had intended the good-bye of eight weeks previously to be the final one. Logan put the flower into a crystal vase that had not contained anything for a whole year, or longer for all she knew. The flower looked insignificant, tatty, pitiful – upstaged as it was by the armoured vase. But there was no other place where Logan could have put it.

“God forgive me for my sins,” she muttered. Then she went away for good. She felt the still so fresh scar pull on her heart as she pulled the door shut behind her for the last time.

Aubrey accompanied his wife carrying the pink pail. They must not look like skollies. In fact, she looked lovely in her silvery scarf. She felt Aubrey in that scarf. (It had been a gift long ago.) Aubrey was excited by his new designation as salesman of his wife’s and children’s handicraft. He had not been able to contribute much to the creative process, because of his fine motor coordination or something, or actually it was his fingers which were too big, that was it, he thought. Although he himself was easily torn, just like this tissue paper.

Logan, on the other hand, realised at this point that God had left the Taylor family after all. It was her scarf alone that protected her head. She was naked. Naked and cast out she went after Aubrey carrying the pail. She had not the imagination to do anything else.

They stood between the pharmacy and the supermarket and watched people doing their errands. After an hour, an elderly and very trembly white lady in an obviously hand-knitted cardigan and old, white shoes, approached them.

“Did you make these?” she chirped feebly, pointing a huge, crooked and vibrating finger.
“My wife and kids, M’am,” replied Aubrey happily, adding, “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, in his Law does he meditate day and night.”

Logan’s initial cold shock on hearing her husband speak so gave way to renewed flow of blood when she saw the old woman half-close her eyes and begin nodding. Not that that took much, what with whatever it was that shook her anyway.

“And he shall be like a tree planted by the river of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season, his leaf also shall not wither – “
“His leaf shall not wither,” interrupted the lady.
“And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper,” concluded Aubrey.
“Prosper,” echoed the lady. She seemed to be in something of a trance.

There was a pause during which some snow settled in the crevices of Logan’s heart, or so it seemed. As good as moneyless, jobless – this insecurity tore her apart. She must be strong, but now her husband had gone mad. How should Logan understand, what should she do? Where was her faith, her guidance? There was nowhere to sit down. There was no provision. This was all, she was certain, because of her spiritual infidelity. But when had she made the pact with the Devil? Logan could no longer remember, although the flowers appeared to her now in all their hopelessness.

Aubrey put his arm around his wife. She stared at him in horror as he said, “What’s wrong, Logan?”
Logan shook her head.
“Come now,” said Aubrey, “we just had the first sale of the day and what a long face are you making?”

Logan pressed a smile. It was not painless, but she succeeded. Who was this man, whom she had not only despised, but indeed ignored, for more than two years now? Who bathed, who played with her children, whose children were hers too, and who touched her own body with his hands, both tender and brutal? Aubrey held her in his dry, yellow hands and said,

“Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in you, yea, in the shadow of your wings I will make my refuge, until these calamities be overpassed.”

Logan began to sob, there was no holding her. She stood for two hours sobbing intermittently, while Aubrey Taylor sold twelve flowers in all and they had twelve rand. They moved over to the public library where Aubrey doubled the price and sold ten more and they had thirty-two rand. They had just about covered their costs, Aubrey pointed out to Logan, who was utterly exhausted from smiling at customers in her grief.

They crossed the parking place, made their way through the taxi ranks. Then came the streets flanked by grey, white, pink, orange, blue and green and yellow little houses, with low walls and torn fences around semi-barren gardens of molerat hills, wild grass and marigolds. There was the park, which was an expanse of molerat hills, patches of grass, broken playground equipment. Beyond the park were the tenements, where the Taylors had their home. They sat down on a bench that had two slats left.

“Aubrey, man,” began Logan. How would she say this? How could she break his heart?
“I can no more,” she said. “I can no more believe in God.”

There. She looked at him, filled with confusion and remorse. He would cast her out now, she was sure, or worse – lecture her, redouble his absurd faith. But he remained tense – silent, staring ahead of him grimly as it seemed. Logan became fearful. She dare not touch him. She dare not move. But Aubrey turned around quick as a cat and smote her with a glance so furious, she flinched as if she’d been hit.

“I blame myself,” she defended.
“Why do you go on and on,” he hissed, “pouring this ash on your head?”
He grabbed her scarf, yanked it down. The knot caught at her throat and Logan gagged.
“Moody woman! That depression of yours affects me, man!” exclaimed Aubrey, shouting it out for all the molerats to hear.

That was too much for Logan, who shot up from the bench, toppling one hundred and seventy-seven flowers. She put one hand on her hip and wagged the pointer finger of the other in front of seething Aubrey.

“You!” she screeched. “You!”

She searched, but could find no more words in the heat. Became aware: here they were, a poor man and his wife, squabbling in the morning sun about unhappiness or rejection. About fear and guilt and pain. She broke down. How many tears would wash through her yet today? Tomorrow? They did not clean her, these tears, but eroded. Sniffing, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her blouse (for God’s sake there were no tissues to blow it), she began to pick up the flowers. They’d become sandy. She blew off the sand, stuck the flowers one by one back into the bucket. She expected Aubrey, who’d risen, to kick her. She slowed down in her picking, waiting for it. But in vain. Instead, he came down on the ground and started helping her. They looked at one another: wary, hesitant. Slowly, some of the hardness went away.

“Here we are,” said Aubrey, “You, Logan, and me. Is it not enough?”

Enough, yes. It was enough. Contradictory currents coursed through the woman.

“Some things are too difficult,” she eventually said, still picking, but more slowly, as if she were in a dream now. Then the bucket was full.
“There we are,” said Aubrey, getting up, taking the handle, holding out his hand for her.

Of course he was perfectly right. There they were - naked or not, with or without God. She was his wife, re-tying her scarf. God was here or not. But here they were. They would soldier on till the end of this war, because they were.


Acts In The Valley


Who could say with certainty how long the circus might live? There was pressure, she knew, from animal rights activists about the elephants, latterly also about the baboons. There were so many more exciting or convenient forms of entertainment for adults and children alike – games arcades, videos, films and television, adventure sports and ecotours – that it did on certain days appear to be abnormal or sad, rather than natural and funny, for people to sit on hard benches watching clowns, trapeze-artistes, jugglers, dancing pigs and ponies, a nodding, bowing camel and the antics of four small dogs with their glittering, overweight mistress. Not forgetting Spook and Mavis balancing on their ethnically decorated stools, docilely lifting fore-feet and then curtseying for applause.

Sherry did secretly feel critical towards Doodle, the elephant trainer. The twee tricks were degrading, she felt, for the grand creatures. Her own four darlings managed much more glamorous acts, which accorded with their extraordinary souls. As far as Sherry was concerned, Doodle ought to stretch himself – literally by lying down.

“He should lie on the ground and let Spook and Mavis step over him,” she told Zola more than once when they were on the road. “They do that, you know. Their feet are padded. Sensitive. Like cats.”

Mostly, Zola did not reply. He kept his eyes straight, or brushed his eyebrow quickly. But occasionally he smiled, gazed lovingly at her with his huge, black irises swimming weightlessly in their ivory globes, and said, “Ma Sherry wants new tricks.”

When Zola called her Ma Sherry, it sounded like mon cherié, which was a caress for her over-receptive, but uncaressed, body.

“They don’t cause harm, you know,” Sherry insisted, “They don’t want a mess under their feet.” She gurgled laughingly . “Promise!”

Zola chuckled. Sherry lit another cigarette.

“You must not,” said Zola, wrinkling his nose. Tacita and André discouraged smoking among troupe members. But Zola did call her ‘you’. In the cabby, Zola called Sherry ‘you’. Only in the cabby.

“Shut up,” said Sherry crossly. The ‘you’ was a painful kiss on her unkissed heart.

Zola brushed his eyebrow. He wound down the window and Sherry sighed. They never touched. How could they? They travelled together always, but they were too unlikely.

Sherry’s stomach-ache lasted for four days. She would not go to a doctor. She needed to read her ache, to work its message out. In the evening of the last day, Sherry rose from a restless afternoon catnap on her bed and looked out of the caravan. The sun hung low. It was weirdly perched beside the mountain whose slope slid into the horizon where she knew the sea to be. It must be nice at the beach now. Sherry remembered the silhouettes of couples photographed on writing paper from days gone by in her classmates’ scrapbooks, in which they celebrated their boyfriends and girlish longings for true love. Always on beaches, always orange, always blessed by setting suns.

Sherry blew up smoke to veil the vision. It was her eleventh time here. The valley felt (not for the first time) constricting. Ashen. Evil. It had given her the proverbial ‘funny feeling’ before. Now it was newly eloquent and more urgent in her abdomen. Funny feelings were something that Sherry took seriously, perhaps too seriously. They were not something to be laughed away. Even now, after the show, there was a peculiar, heavy tremour in her belly. Who or what was walking there inside her?

Across from the site was the completely unspiritual lump of shopping complex, devoid of beauty or adornment. Sherry lit another cigarette and watched the vapour depart with each breath.

The ‘Pay and See’ section with the animals closed at 6:30pm. Zola had an hour to himself. He approached Sherry’s caravan. The dogs greeted him happily. Zola accepted the creatures as an attribute of their owner. Like himself. Their obedience to her, their ability to perform the magical tricks she had taught them – these were proof of Ma Sherry’s power. Tacita had told Zola once that the brightest star in the sky was called the Dog-Star. He had grinned and not believed her. Then he realised that the star was Ma Sherry’s Guide.

Zola seated himself on the lowest step that led down from the door. He patted Lola and Bobbi, he patted Ezekiel and Swan. When he turned round to face Sherry inside the gloomy interior, she met his eyes straight on without smiling. Zola knew immediately: she was in pain, and anxious.

She was making complications he did not understand. Nor did he want to. Their souls were in harmony. Was that not sufficient? Sherry wanted to keep the harmony secret. She was ashamed. Why? This question he was quite unable to answer. Zola was not ashamed. He loved Sherry truly as he had loved his one and only mother. His body went to the Big One without a thought. Zola trusted his instinct. Yet he could see that she suffered. She spoke with the Shades, to the Spirits. Such vibrational speaking aroused reverence in Zola. Like bubbles in a good, sweet beer the reverence rose up in him, spread through his veins like streams over a countryside. This was splendid evidence of the existence of God. So it was. He will not question what is true.

But the woman was small and sharp as a piece of quartz tonight. He cannot go there now without bruising his self. So Zola rose resignedly and went away.

Sherry watched him lift first one leg and then the other nimbly over the barricades at the extreme end of the camp. His inadmissible, invisible kisses on her heart ached. But she could not call him now. To what end, anyway? What did she want from him? Even if she had known, she would have ignored it. There was some more definite matter, even if it was as yet in limbo, to be attended to. She could feel it accumulating in her body, she longed to deal with it, to expunge the discomfort she was suffering. The dusk darkened and Zola’s form became indistinct in the distance.

Sherry was roused by a grating sound behind her. Then the sound of gravel thrown against the caravan window. The dogs yapped crossly. She shushed them and drew back the cloth covering the window. Aha. Perhaps resolution would be quicker than she had thought. Below on the pale grass she saw looking up at her a man no longer young, with a horrifically handsome face. He lifted his cap and showed that he desired entrance to her caravan.

Sherry carried the feeling of trouble brewing. She opened her caravan and stepped down the grille mesh of the steps onto already damp grass. She was aware of the smell of seaweed blown by the wind from the coast across the valley. Most of the troupe’s members had already lit up their coaches. Festive bulbs outlined the tent’s roof-panels in curvaceous sweeps.

The barking dogs scuttled past Sherry and under the caravan to harass the stranger. But interestingly Swan (Sherry’s angel) quietened almost immediately and so did the others then. They sniffed excitedly at the man’s trousers and shoes. As for the man himself, he behaved in so self-composed a manner that the dogs may as well not have existed. Apart from Swan’s abrupt acceptance of the intruder, this was the first unusual quality that Sherry noted. A coldness, an untouchability even. She led the man through the barricade, which stood slightly askance for the purposes of her business.

“You didn’t run into Mavis and Spook?” she said merrily.

When it came to clients, good humour was automatically her mask.

The man ignored Sherry’s question. It would dangle forever, as so many questions do. He seated himself on the grubby upholstery behind the table. Sherry squashed her cigarette and put the crystal ash tray aside.

“Oscar Simons,” said the man politely, unnecessarily. He stretched out a tough, grey, steely hand, held it up for her to take.

As Sherry’s own, soft, white, podgy fingers brushed his, she shook her head. She was trying to focus, but for some reason she felt shattered, or dizzy. She was in transit of some kind. But suppressed these warnings. Became quite analytic.

One. She had a tummy ache. Two. She was terrified. Three. This man would change her life. Four. She did not know at all what the outcome of the consultation would be. This she endured in the hope that the Spirits would guide her.

“Sherry Lin,” she said irregularly. “What can I do for you?”

The man remained silent. He looked at his folded hands on the table before him. The dogs were peculiarly interested. Swan was gazing devotedly at Oscar Simons. What kind of name was that for such a man? Sherry decided to light some incense. Why Rose? It must be Rose. All right.

Then she leaned against the diminuitive kitchen sink with her hips so broad (a target with a centre), and looked at him.

“You can think about it,” she said, adding, “The circus leaves tomorrow. But I’ll be in all morning.”

She already knew that dusk was his time, however. So she continued.

“I can do the crystal ball, the cards or the palm. But I – don’t limit myself. I use those things as aids, okay. To help you get in touch with where you want to be. You know, your light.”

She should not have said ‘light’. He flinched at the word, pressed his hands together.

“Where you want to be,” she repeated quickly.

She observed the man's silence. Noted his handsomeness become increasingly bullish: his complexion lightened like drying cement, it swept up lazily in him as if an eland was trudging through his form – or was it Sherry’s?

Still they were both quiet. Her guts were quite taut now, a cat in wait of its prey. The moment was intimate despite their extraordinary distance from one another. The moment between hunger and food – both on the alert. The man and the woman inhabited different worlds – worlds with opposite charges which were here now unexpectedly circling one another, threatening to collide.

When Oscar Simons lifted his hand at last, Sherry could not suppress a gasp. Holding her in his nightblack gaze he glided towards her on a pillow of snowy feathers. He seemed furious and she was afraid. Summoning all her professional powers, she turned her head and let him perform the act. She was aware of the dogs whining softly, but they must have remained motionless. For when she came out of her altered state, everything was as it had been before. Notwithstanding that protocol had been breached and she had allowed it.

It seemed that Mr Simons had registered none of his transformations, certainly not his own soul’s invasion into Sherry’s (untouchable!) body. He was peering down, she noticed, at his open palm. It paleness stood out in the gloomy caravan. The Rose incense spiralled up triumphantly from its glowing pinprick point. Its fragrance seemed suddenly awful and unsubtle, piercing Sherry’s nostrils and her throat.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Zola. But with a gesture perfectly invisible to her prospective client, she sent the baboon- and pony-guard scurrying away. Oscar Simons’ rêverie was disturbed by a scuffle between the four dogs intent on following Zola excitedly. Sherry dismissed the animals with a second gesture – visible this time – that re-assured Mr Simons. Without a word, he laid the back of his right hand flat onto the collapsible table, while the clairvoyant lit two candles. These she placed on either side of her client’s palm before settling herself heavily (she was dreadfully conscious of her heaviness) opposite the man.

The dogs re-entered through the cat-flap. One of them stood up on his hind legs, leaning with his front paws against Oscar’s thigh in thick cotton pants.

“Ezekiel!” cried the clairvoyant.

The dog descended to his rightful place on the carpeted floor of the caravan. Beneath Sherry's creaking chair.

She took Oscar’s hand, bent over it. He saw the thin grey furrow demanding re-dyeing at the top of her head. He became violently aware of the Rose smell, shook his head to uncloud his senses. For in that sweetness there were thorns, of course, which the woman lost no time now in pressing into her client’s open hand.

“I must warn you,” said Sherry Lin, “I give the good news with the bad. Except death. I will not foretell death.”

“You have done that once,” said Oscar Simons under his breath.


He stared at her so bitterly that he brought her eyes down with his eyes alone and then she noticed: he possessed a Simian line. He had callouses from which wept streets of lines – deep and few and worrisome. Between these lurched several incisive crosses, down over and across the Lifeline, which itself hopskotched in absurd partings and re-gatherings round the mean ball of the thumb, from where it flowed finally like a fantastic delta out into the iron of his wrist.

Sherry glanced at her client’s face. His handsomeness alienated her sharply. Such a beastly hand. She considered for a moment asking him to leave, on account of her stomach-ache. Then it occurred to her that no mention had been made of payment. Breathily and embarrassed she let go of his hand and informed him of his options.

“I have R50.00,” he said.

She dared not resist him and swallowed her pride and indignation.

“Is there nothing specific that you want to ask?” she said, playing for time to examine her conscience, or the situation. Her innards thumped. Sherry summoned her Guides. Then she rose and bolted the catflap, imprisoning the dogs for safety’s sake. She had grown afraid. Knew she was in a fix. There was no mistaking the man’s animus towards her. But the dogs were perfectly calm, which made her hesitant.

“Your heart – “ she began (for Oscar Simons had no specific questions) – “spans extremes. I think I see you stretching yourself. It could literally be between places, trying to be in two or more places at once. Or it could also be inside yourself. Maybe you’re trying to reconcile forces you believe might pull you apart.”

She looked up again. Most clients were obliging: there would be a glimmer of recognition, a nod, or even an awed open mouth and widened eyes melting into her if she got close to their secret truth – which showed that they were working together, that the other was actively applying her general comments to themselves. But Oscar Simons (smirking?) was looking at Swan. Swan had got up and was standing dumbly at the door. She called him secretly, by the faintest of snaps with her fingers. He turned and jumped nimbly up into her lap, where there was so much uncertainty. Perhaps not all of it unpleasant.

Swan’s claws dug deeply into the flesh of her thighs as he tried to get comfortable. Although desperately trying to hold on to the dog, and on to all that she had faith in and knew, she was aware of herself falling apart, or being pulled apart by the man’s suddenly openly hateful gaze on her.

“I have a feeling,” Sherry Lin pressed out through phlegm in her throat, “that you do not wish to go through with this.”

“Please. Go on.”

But she must not. She realised with a pang that she did not possess what she had up to now never had to use: cunning. She must abdicate at once.

“I am sorry,” she asserted therefore, “I seem to be feeling very unwell. I cannot give you proper service tonight.”

Oscar Simons did not hear her, or if he did, he did not understand. He extracted a R50.00 note from his pocket and put it on the table on her side, near her breasts. Inside of which Zola’s kisses were jumping around on the heart. Oh, she longed for Zola now, his soliticitude.

“I am interested,” murmured Mr Simons, “I ask that you continue please.”

There was no sign of mercy. The Guides had deserted her. She summoned the last of her professionalism.

“I cannot,” she said, “I am afraid tonight I cannot.”

Then Oscar Simons stood up, picked up the R50.00 and tucked it into her cleavage. The dogs had deserted her. They allowed it all as if it was the most natural thing in the world, as if it was meant to be. With Sherry in the losing position.

Then Oscar Simons started to speak.

“You,” he hissed, “you lick and bite.”

Sherry stared at him in shock. Her face trembled with fear and outrage. She was in danger. This man might be armed. Where was Zola? She had sent him away.

Paradoxically, in order to escape, she plunged her attention into the man’s terrible palm. That flat thing lying there taut as a spring, ready to trap her. But she was already trapped. She tried to calm herself, to accept this incomprehensible turn. Was she ready to die? How could she not have foreseen this? But oh, she had, she had! What had got the better of her? Curiosity? No – it was her innocence, hell. Now there was one thing, and that was to ‘go with the flow’. If only she could feel the flow. Oscar Simons stopped it, so it seemed.

“I see sparks,” she cried. She felt the R50.00 note, the dark pink lion in her bra half-in, half-out, pricking her with a corner as if it were biting.

Mr Simons’ thin lips twitched derisively. He enjoyed her torture.

“Sparks, which ignite for you in some way. Something very important to you will be coming alive very, very soon. Things will grow out of that!” She faltered. Did she still know what she was saying? Did she ever know? “Do you – is your work with – I see green. Plants?”

But her thoughts were, ‘Envy. Poison.’

He laughed out loud, briefly, like a clap.

“I just thought.”

There was no resonance to his laugh. It stopped as soon as it had been emitted.

“I see significant change.” She was crying softly, helplessly. Both he and she ignored the fact. “But – something must be overcome.”

Swan jumped abruptly off her lap. It made her cough. She had to get up, drink water. Water streamed from her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she bawled. She blew her nose into a kitchen cloth, for the box of tissues was behind him and she could not reach over him for it. “I’m sorry to say it, but there is something in the way. Like a poison.” Her stomach was in spasm. “Some cleansing ritual, perhaps, must be performed.”

Oscar Simons laughed again. His laughter was almost joyful now, due to its high pitch. But again it clapped without echo and disappeared as abruptly as it had come.

Sherry did not sit down again. She had never been so out of her depth. She felt alone, abandoned, at the gates of hell. She was in pain and tired. Yet she smiled, or grimaced. She shook her head, squeezed her eyes shut, thought involuntarily of Mavis the elephant and her daughter Spook standing innocently, elephantinely behind her caravan - unable to help, unable to step over anybody or anything, unable to be grand, sensitive and queenly. Condemned to curtsey, to curl up their magnificent noses on their foreheads like handles on a teacup, instead of hurling offenders liberally into the sea, or against the walls of shopping malls rather. ‘I am a circus animal,’ thought Sherry, ‘an animal, performing tricks.’ The thought calmed her, as if she were at last accepting her fate.

“You’ll surely prosper, you are so determined,” she whimpered, looking away from him and adding, “I’m done, Sir, now.”

Done. She knew now what the matter was. It was her own fault. She had never really believed in evil, nor in evil intent. She had not stretched herself and this had made her vulnerable. To find herself in the present situation was a logical consequence of the tepid, self-satisfied, untouched and untouchable life she had led till now. Tacita had advised Sherry long ago to consult modern hand analysis guidebooks, to bring her clairvoyance up to date. Old-fashioned palmistry can be dangerous, she had said, and cause harm. As for a crystal ball! But Sherry had dismissed Tacita. Sherry knew what she knew from way back. She didn’t need textbooks, let alone new books! She’d borrowed her school mates’ Game Books decades ago when they had all played merely for fun. In any case, the Medium was always warned not to foretell bad news and she never really did. Sherry had always enjoyed using the aids loosely. She picked up enough from just looking at her clients, she paid close attention to them, which was enough. That was her gift, after all, and there’d never been consequences. The fortune-telling – well, perhaps it was really a screen, a smokescreen, for the fact that all she was doing was paying very close attention to things. Feeling things that people were neglecting. She sacrificed her body and its well-being for this, after all! She was not to blame. And this very gift, its purity, was now a problem.

She began to breathe heavily. She was still alive and wished to remain so, perhaps even to be given another chance.

Oscar Simons got up and left. Just like that. He opened the door and did not close it behind him. Sherry was unbelieving, although there was no mistaking his disdainful gaze. Her very innocence, or insistence on ignorance, was a sin, she realised now. The dogs would not comfort her, they ran after him for a way. She was no longer their mistress. She sat down again at last between the candles and lit a cigarette. She was sweating, and cold when the dogs returned.

When Zola entered, he perceived at once the change that had overcome Sherry. She was catatonic. He tried to embrace her, to warm her, and it worked. She did not push him away or cry, ‘No!’ Her act had slipped. Zola had seen the tall, nimble man skip down the steps and make a quick, hunched exit from the circle of lit wagons. Zola controlled an urge to run after the man, to thank him.

But Sherry’s trance, her docility was not so good now. Zola took the money out of her bosom. He put it in a cup in the kitchen cabinet. The evening show would start any minute now. Sherry Lin and the Canine Flyers were on just before interval. Zola put out her things.

She readied herself mechanically. Tied Lola’s hat; then the ribbons and bells round the necks of Bobbi, Swan and Zeke, who had all betrayed her. She re-applied glitter to her hair and cleavage and sobbed once. Zola’s ocean-heart absorbed the sob. Sherry squeezed her feet into the marine-blue velvet pumps with their silver sequins. Zola watched. Of what did his powers consist, he wondered. The ability to wait? A feeling for necessity, for what must be? He thought he knew somewhere, or could sense at least, this woman with her skin as soft as chicken down was yearning. To twirl lightly like the smoke from her cigarettes, up and away from a deeply profane existence. But it was only her wish – a wish as insubstantial as scent. Scent – which she was applying now from a gaudy purple crystal bottle. All was the same as ever, and yet all was completely changed.

Zola kissed Sherry now on her powdered cheek. The kiss sunk in there. Like a rooting bulb in the ground it stayed under cover of the skin as she exited, apparently calm, but inwardly so bewildered as to have turned quite numb. Zola went out after her, closing the caravan door without locking it. Sherry hesitated, turned around and found herself re-assured by Zola’s uplifted hand. ‘I will keep watch,’ it seemed to say. How strange that Zola should be her midwife.

Ezekiel stood on his hind legs in the arena. Lola, Bobbi and Swan ran round him. They formed a line, walking upright behind Ezekiel, panted and smiled their doggy smiles. Ms Lin smiled. They received applause. Then she lifted a lumpy leg under the petticoats. The dogs scaled it one by one as she turned round and round on the blunt tip of her dark velvet pump. How fluid were her motions and how gracefully she spun. Huge as the earth itself Ms Lin turned slightly tilted on her axis, inclining her twinkling head. The dogs chased the leg in the air and bound over, over, over and over. It was so natural, so innocent, completely charming.

Then Bobbi, Lola and Zeke stood out. Zola was at the curtain in his Nathan Roy’s Circus overall, reminding the dogs to stay put. They sat obediently waiting, while Ms Lin tied Swan's old, white wings. He stepped delicately into a nylon brace, which she buckled. Swan began to paddle to his song. Slowly he was lifted up, till eventually he flew with huge, blank wings over the heads of the ambiguous audience. It was a touching sight, this ugly duckling with his black nose and ragged hairs like feathers flying up so high and brave. It did not escape Sherry that some audience members looked down in shame that a dog should be made to endure such 'indignity'. That was the word she had heard used to refer to Swan’s bravery and loyal co-operation, her love and years of hard work.

When those unspiritual people looked up again, a frame with two swings had been temporarily erected in the middle of the arena, onto which Bobbi and Lola hopped as cued, while Zeke and Swan (who had been divested of his wings) pushed them with their fore-paws. Ms Lin walked round to receive half-hearted applause. Bobbi and Lola leapt from their swings in flight, one by one onto the bosom of their mistress who kissed  them passionately. The tent, which was perhaps two-thirds full, clapped in spurts. As she circled, Bobbi and Lola scrambled up to perch on her shoulders, while Swan and Ezekiel bounced into her arms. Thus Ms Lin and her Canine Flyers exited through the flap of the sumptuous maroon curtain, like a laden ship into the smell of seaweed and a crescent moon above the mountain peak. A fellow-act was already hurling hoops inside.

“I won’t be there for the last round,” she whispered to a messenger to tell Tacita who was compèring. “I’m feeling ill.”

She heaved up into her painted wagon, followed by her four-legged entourage. Zola, too, smelt the seaweed as he watched strips of cloud drive out and bruise the sickle-moon. He helped Sherry out of her velvet and fake silk dress. This act did them both good. Unbelievable thought this was, her body leaned on his. She stepped into a shabby negligee, right there in front of him. She stuck her thoughtless arms into the towelled sleeves of the gown he found and offered, standing behind her.

“Sorry you are not feeling happy,” said Zola.


“That client,” she confided, “he frightened me. As if he wanted – to harm me. Wanted me. He hated me, or blamed me for – I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Zola was so grateful to that client.

“We will walk,” he said. 

He extracted a little torch from his breastpocket. She put her hand in his arm. It felt strange, a bit young to do so, but not wrong. They walked  over the field, past the elephants still waiting, along the road towards the smell of kelp. They walked seemingly forever beneath the cold crescent of the moon. They did not rest. They had neither words nor real intimacy between them, yet their body warmth commingled and wove itself round them like a blanket, keeping them safe and invisible. Neither of them knew what would become of them or of this moment. The dogs sniffed and pattered on the gravel verge.

Sherry Lin felt newborn. She did not feel her lack of fitness, she did not sweat or pant. She missed her John Player Specials slightly. Zola had caught her falling from the pedestal of her illusions or her dishonesty with herself. It was not a mistake to go like this with him. Her stomach was feeling noticeably better.

“I will give up everything,” she said, “now for you.”

“You do not need,” the protector of baboons and ponies and faltering clairvoyants said, “to give up. Anything.”

“I am ignorant,” she insisted, “I am a baby.”

“Shsh,” said Zola under the tall trees. “It is nonsense, you.”

After an hour or so they reached a brook. There was the sound of water – not yet the sea, but the sound of eternity anyway – and the smell of leaves. They sat down. Sherry was tired now.

“Sleep,” said Zola, “To have a dream is important now.”

He pushed her down onto the cold, black earth. She felt his hand, which was hard but warm, creep up her cold leg. She held her breath. He was taking advantage and the advantage was his to take.

“To get out of one life,” murmured Zola, “go into another different life. You can dream.”

His hand moved up and round like a slow-growing tendril, without haste, completely certain of its path. It had been so long, too long, since a human hand had touched Sherry’s body. That body was gone. This one here was never touched.

“Yes,” said Sherry. Her hand involuntarily come down onto Zola’s and imprisoned it. His expression was puzzled, alarmed even. She raised her eyebrows.

“It has suddenly become very dangerous for me. I am not sure why. I am a baby. I don’t know.”

“You are a powerful woman is what that man saw,” said Zola. “He is jealous.”

Was it that simple? Sherry’s grip on Zola’s hand loosened. He resumed his patient caress up her cool, fat thighs, as if it was the only thing that was possible to do now. It seemed impossible. How could anybody be jealous of her in her ignorance, her lack of looks, her desperate means of living life?

She stopped Zola’s hand again. How strange this all was! He forced himself gently on, along her tingling skin despite her will. She took a few seconds to decide whether or not to fight. But the cold, black earth with its leaves underneath her and this man – he was just a man – he knew her too well. She could not remember being known so well. So she closed her eyes and disappeared. She sank, or flew somewhere on an invisible string at a very great distance from her body. The pleasure was terrifying. Was this what she had feared? Certainly it was too much, too much for her.

She returned with the dogs all over her. Was cross. Embarrassed. The stomach ache, at last, was gone, and with it her last belief in herself.

“What are you doing to me!” she whisper-shouted.

Zola looked hurt.

“You are a woman!” he objected. “Why do you not want? This is not for shame. It is our nature.”

She had no retort. So she really was a baby. She was so exhausted and he kept on at her. By dawn she finally relented for his sake and experienced with amazement the fact that the pony-minder, the truck-driver, that Zola of all people was going places, going far, through or with her. Her, Sherry Lin, awakening inside a particularly vivid dream, less ignorant certainly than before.

Shivering with cold and confusion, Sherry’s heart tore like a piece of pure silk and out of the rent bubbled unstoppable tears. Zola sponged the wetness on her face with his lips.

“I love that Oscar-man,” he murmured, “because without him, this would not be.”

At exactly the same time as Zola was drying Sherry’s face, Doodle the elephant-trainer was handing out tissues to Tacita. She was crying and so, it seemed, was André. The acrobats, the hoop-artist, Doodle, the clowns, the jugglers young and old, the trapeze-artists, the magician – they all stood grey and smouldering, contemplating the ash of Sherry Lin’s recently paid-off caravan.

What message to them all had been sent in this? Sherry had no enemies, or did she? The police were taking notes as they stepped, impressive in their shiny action boots, through the scorched remains of cracked crockery, cupboards, blanket patches or wigs with nylon fibres standing stiff like wires, sooty make-up bottles and containers, fragments of what used to be glazed figs, perhaps, black-baked apples and misshapen tins of what might have been watermelon jam. The policemen’s feelings, unknown to themselves, were released together with vestiges of smoke into the ether as they worked.

Onlookers in the early-morning crowd that was gathering were conferencing about the spectacle or tragedy in their valley. There were builders and builders’ assistants, bunches of unemployed men, skateboarding youths at a loss as to what to do with their futures, char-women, and cashiers on the way to their tills. The Dog-woman had been a witch. Why else would he have wanted to burn her? But who burnt the witch, when witches are well-known not to exist in this new South Africa of ours? With her dogs having to die innocently, too, a ragged valley youth in a grey beanie pointed out. But their teeth should surely have remained. What about the witch’s teeth? Do teeth not burn? It was terrible, a char in sensible shoes said, crossing the road and escaping into the blind walls of her employer’s house to do the dishes.

There were no teeth, no bones, no bits of fur or hair or skin. No traces of living bodies in the blaze. Then Bill, a young juggler not yet twenty, looked round for the quiet shadow of Tacita’s pony-minder who always drove Sherry Lin in that truck.

“Zola!” said Bill softly with intensity.

There was a hideous silence. Even the policemen who knew nothing stopped in their tracks and gazed expectantly at the gathered troupe. Those who had moist eyes and noses became abruptly dry and open. A cold southeaster fanned the shock. Bill felt guilty, or accused. He was not suggesting, but …

“Shoo! Hamba!”

A policeman chased away the small dog that had snuck in underneath the cordons of red and white plastic tape. As the man ran after the dog, more dogs arrived. They examined the remains of their home with their wet noses, in wonderment. People still standing round, and the troupe saw Sherry Lin approaching in her dressing gown. She was supported by Zola and they were crossing the parking lot. The policemen had with their batons and megaphones to assist in creating a channel for them through the crowd, who wanted to touch her. Their fingers darted out, then retracted fearfully before contact was made.

Sherry Lin and her Canine Flyers together with Zola re-entered the fold or inner sanctum of Nathan Roy’s Circus.

Bill ground his teeth in shame about himself. He disappeared to work it out, rehearsing ferociously in the tent with ten bottles, even though it was not his slot. Nobody noticed. Whoever’s turn it was, was not there.

Sherry Lin described Oscar Simons, but nobody with that name appeared to reside within the municipal boundaries of the valley. He must have come in from outside. Did Ms Lin really not wish to lay a charge?

“Whatever charge there is, it’s laid,” she retorted cheekily or grimly. And smiled at the interrogating officer.

She shook her head, feeling in her unwashed hair the smell of black soil, the rich fragrance of dank, cold leaves on which she and Zola had made love – an unvigilant, careless love which had destroyed her life and home.

“I am a baby,” she said. The words caught in her throat. “I’ve only just been born.”

And the officer’s body or soul posted his unacknowledged feelings like messages in bottles, Sherry saw, and knew they’d wash up on her shore sometime.

Then André put a blanket round her shoulders and gave her a tot of peach schnapps, which Doodle, who took her hand emotionally, happened to have in stock.

The circus had an appointment up north tomorrow. They needed to leave now, because there were too few trucks and as usual two trips would have to be made to get everything across. Zola was required. Before they drove off, he was praised.

“You saved her life,” said Tacita with swimming eyes.

Zola felt nourished and big. He hummed a little tune. He cast a glance, no, a look – a proper look at his queen in her blanket. He brushed his eyebrow. She was at peace now. The dogs dreaming at her feet.


Goldilocks and the Seven Bears

A modern fairy tale

by - Silke Heiss


Christmas 2006 was the first time that Father Bear, Mother Bear, Baby Bear and Goldilocks met up since the old days. Baby Bear was no longer a baby. In fact, Goldilocks was now his wife. Baby Bear also had two sisters, who had not been born at the time of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.


The sisters, Julia and Ursula, arrived at the family cottage, around which the forest of old had given way to housing estates. Julia and Ursula brought their loving husbands, Bruno and Blanco, respectively.

The moment the family reunited, they quarrelled. Everyone wanted the biggest chair, the softest cushion, the bed with the newest Sealy Posturepedic, and the largest portions of meat. Bruno accused Blanco of selfishness. Sensitive Julia sighed a lot. Blanco accused Julia of being passive. Ursula snapped at Bruno for making a fuss. Goldilocks aroused envy by pampering Father Bear. Baby Bear became confused and accidentally threw away Father Bear's spare keys. 

Meanwhile, Mother Bear said over and over: "I can't do this."

Blanco became ever more grumpy and withdrawn. He took to barking gruffly at all the bears from behind his newspaper. Finally, Mother Bear realised that no longer could she endure Blanco picking his nose and his unwashed toes on her recently re-upholstered chair.

"He is a pig," she declared in bed to Father Bear, "a sewer rat. A virus with no regard for decency or common manners."

On her way to the bathroom, Ursula overheard her mother's cruel judgments. She stormed in and confronted Mother Bear.

No bear slept that night. Mother Bear was tragically ashamed of herself. Eventually, morning broke.
"We all say terrible things sometimes in the privacy of our bedrooms," Julia observed at the breakfast table, at which nobody was eating very much.
Bruno squeezed Julia's delicate, black paw.
"That's right," agreed Goldilocks. "I daresay, Blanco, that you have been unfairly scapegoated. We're all stressed."
"You don't know Blanco!" wept Ursula, "You don't know what a wonderful bear he is. He is better than all of you put together!"

Tears matted her pretty beard. The entire family was moved by this wifely show of devotion.

"The love between you is more important than this unfortunate event," declared Father Bear. "We look forward to seeing you all again soon."
Blanco generously embraced Mother Bear, who was still weeping regretfully.
"I did not hear a thing," he professed truthfully.

Everyone returned home, and Father and Mother Bear found themselves once again alone in their cottage. Mother Bear said: "I felt closer to Blanco than ever before. It was the first moment during the family reunion that unspoken feelings were expressed."

Will the drama be a turning point? Will ancient dynamics reform? Will the clamour for soft cushions, comfortable chairs, excellent mattresses, and abundant meals, yield? Will these desires be replaced by gentle sympathy, restorative dreams, patience and generous words? 

It is possible to imagine it, but only time will tell.