Sonata for a Wanderer
A wanderer travelling this road late one night, you might look from the path out into the dark open veld. Perhaps you might think you saw something there. For a moment a huddle of Mopane trees might look like a dilapidated farmhouse, spectral against the indigo sky. Probably you would shake your head and walk on, telling yourself you were seeing things, that the silence of the veld was getting to you.
Griet would not at first believe that there was a knock at the door. She opened her eyes into the gloom of the old farmhouse kitchen, her head still resting on her arms where she had fallen asleep on the worn oak of the kitchen table. The ashy ends of her dream trailed and she wondered if they carried the knock. The farmhouse was old, the trees that once shielded it from the wind, long gone. Rotten, chopped for firewood or removed for a clear line of sight. The farm was far back from the un-signposted dirt road that ran past it. So a stranger just happening upon the place was the beginning of a ghost story not an actual event. But the knock came again, this time accompanied by a man's voice shouting a greeting. Griet roused herself, pushing away from the table and wiping her bleary eyes on the mangy cardigan she had found in the main bedroom. She walked down the dark hallway leading off the kitchen to the front door. The door rattled on its hinges as she pulled it open.
The man who stood on the porch was surprising. His faded red velvet jacket was garishly sequinned, with a gold 'M' on the pocket from which a rainbow-hued kerchief burst like a psychedelic sneeze. He held in one hand a bulky, square black cardboard box, worn down to the grey innards around the corners and precariously attached to a leather handle. It looked like it might contain a complete set of encyclopedia. Or a small dead body. In his other hand he held a hat that solved the mystery of the 'M'. 'Marvelo' it proclaimed in fuchsia letters that pranced all the way around the purple top hat. She could not get a good look at his face, it seemed to be in shadow, but she had the impression of teeth jutting out at vaguely predatory angles.
“You interrupted me,” she stated.
“A thousand apologies, Madame,” he offered. “I thought I might be late.” He appeared to be looking over her shoulder.
“Late for what?”
“Why late for the show of course!” He flourished the rainbow kerchief as he bowed low. “Marvelo's Marvellous Magic Show.” He looked a little embarrassed as he confided: “You know I really looked hard for a 'show' word beginning with M.”
“How about montage?”
“Madame! You are a genius. Now may I come in and set up?”
“No you absolutely may not. What on earth are you doing here?”
His face darkened, his lips pulled in over the strange teeth, not quite hiding them.
“You ordered a magic show, Madame. Did you forget?”
“Look …. Marvellous …. or whatever your name is … I did not order a magic show. Look around you. Does it look likely that I ordered a magic show? Now please. Go away. It is a Sunday afternoon and I have … things to do.”
“It's Marvelo. Really, Madame. What things?” He tilted his head, his expression a statement of disbelief. And in truth she could not fault him. What things indeed? The old priest had insisted on dropping her off here after her mother's funeral. You must make your goodbyes he had asserted with the authority of a man in whom God might confide. And thus began the long drive from a funeral she did not want to attend to the home she had always hated. Such a good woman she was, the priest would occasionally cry out. And more in that vein. Then a few moments of silence broken by accusatory exclamations of how such a good woman did not deserve such a lonely death. And God be praised that the Spirit had moved him to come and seek out the absent member of his flock when she missed church for the second week in a row. All alone, he repeated more than a few times as if somehow Griet might have missed it. By the end of the drive Griet even welcomed the sight of the farmhouse. And now here she was, back at the home she had avoided for more than a decade, with Marvelo the Magician at the door.
“Marvelo then. It's none of your business.” Griet began to close the door.
Marvelo's face, though still in shadow, seemed to have softened, now more rabbit than predator. He edged forward, his hand staying the door.
“Please Madame. I have come a long way. And I apologise for the misunderstanding. But could I at least trouble you for some water?”
Griet sighed. The day was darkening as storm clouds cast a pall over the valley, the midday heat still rising like malevolence from the dirt of the front yard. A storm was coming. And in that moment, with the darkening house and its memories drawing too close around her, she wavered. She moved aside to let the magician in. He stepped over the threshold then paused in the dim hallway, looking around.
“It's not my house,” she felt compelled to say. “And my name is Griet.”
“Griet,” he repeated, almost to himself. He pronounced the 'g' of her name like the sound of a wave breaking. Not the throat clearing rasp most people managed, like a shovel hitting the dirt. “Mooi.” He smiled at her, perhaps anticipating a return smile, recognition of a shared language. He was disappointed. “You have had a loss, I think?” he said as he followed her into the kitchen. He had not missed the dark cloth over the hall mirror.
“Some would say so. Aren't you worried you should be looking for the people who booked your show?”
He shrugged. “The directions are not always very clear to me.” Griet waited a moment to see if he would say more. He did not. So she went about getting him some water. The dusty cabinets, handmade and fully functional decades before, were now sagging skeletons of their former selves. She managed to find two chipped glasses, which she rinsed and filled with tepid water from the five litre bottle she had brought with her from the city.
“Your water.” She held the glass out to him, now regretting her impulsive decision to let him in, silently willing him to drink the water and leave.
“Thank you, Griet.” He took the glass from her and settled himself at the table. “This is not your home, you say. And yet it seems very familiar to you?” Griet shrugged and sat down at the table, opposite him.
“It was my home. I grew up here.”
“Ah. I see. Then the loss you may or may not have suffered?”
“I am sorry.”
“Don't be. Die donker dae van die dood wat kom is baie. Alles kom tot niks. Dit is 'n gejaag na die wind.” she quoted.
“Ecclesiastes 11 … 'Everything comes to nothing.' Let me see, 'No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.' Goodness that's not very comforting.”
“Nonetheless. It is probably true.” She thinks of the few desultory mourners at her mother's funeral. Not even enough to fill two pews of the tiny church. Outside, as the coffin was lowered into the ground, her mother's brother had sidled up to her, his lazy eye glued to her chest, as he muttered a question about the will. She had turned her back on him. Not trusting herself to answer.
“And this place? What will happen to it?” Marvelo asked in an echo of her uncle's question.
“It was never ours to begin with.” She looked out the window. The wind was picking up. The storm could not be far off. The rain would bring some relief from this stifling heat at least. “Someone from the government will come next week to take it over. There's probably oil here. What happened to your leg?”
He looked down. Blood had stained the front of his trouser leg. He appeared unsurprised to see it there.
“Oh. This. It's nothing really.” He rolled up the trouser to reveal a gaping wound, like a small, bloody mouth. The sock below the gash was threadbare and now bloodstained. “A small accident. Did you know there is a car on this property?” He did not wait for her response but rushed on, excited. “A whole car! Rusted and on bricks. But still. I tell you. The places I could go with a car. No more tramping from place to place.” For a moment Griet wondered if that was what this was all about. A car? Would this strange man try to scam her - or worse? - for an old rusted bakkie?
“You should get it seen to.” She nodded towards the magician's leg. He rolled down the trouser leg, took a sip of the water.
“I know.” He nodded. “The hazards of the trade.” And she had to wonder at the sort of hazards that an itinerant magician would encounter.
“Yes I know there is a car,” she finally answered him. “A bakkie actually. But what were you doing back there?”
“Oh well. For a while I could not figure out where the front door was. Very interesting example of old settler architecture.” She nodded. The house was built with fear in mind, not hospitality. “I had not expected to find such a house so far north. So I walked around a little. Only looking for the door you see. The car was almost … hidden?” He looked at her. She held his look. “Anyway, I literally fell over it. Is it yours?”
“The engine is broken.”
“Oh I'm sure I can ….”
“No, you probably can't. I … someone poured sand in the engine.”
He caught her off guard by laughing.
“Oh … sand in the engine … oh … goodness. You … someone must have been pretty angry. Oh … that is funny.”
In spite of herself, she started to laugh. It did sound absurd now. Then, however, it had not been remotely funny. Then, it had been a pointless act of retribution, the flailing of a child against a titan. She had hardly even known what she was doing. She had lain awake through the long night after her mother had burned the air ticket, rising before dawn, driven by her powerlessness and her rage, to where the bakkie stood. She unscrewed some things and pulled out others, finally packing some of the arid sand that shrouded their valley into an open tube, then crept back into the house to her bed. As the sun rose, her mother and father began the preparations for church. Every Sunday was the same. The long trip to the nearest church more than fifty kilometers away where they would sit and kneel and stand and kneel and kneel and kneel for two excruciating hours. Listening to a sermon delivered by a priest whose spiced English rendered it both diabolical and incomprehensible. Her mother would emerge from the church rapturous as a martyred saint. That Sunday though, her mother's lips had tightened into lines pale and bloodless as earthworms as she started the bakkie and heard the engine shudder, watched the smoke rise. She had marched white-faced into the house. Eventually, she had emerged and Griet and her father were treated to their new Sunday ritual: kneeling on the hard boards of the kitchen floor while her mother read every verse of despair, rage or condemnation she could find in the Old Testament. There were many.
“If you think you can fix it, it is yours.”
“I thank you, Griet. Perhaps, in exchange, I could provide you with a little entertainment?” Marvelo asked. Then, dropping the stage manner. “You sure look like you could use a break.” It was this small kindness that made up her mind. She felt the tears swell her nose and eyes but counted steadily till they subsided.
“All right Marvelo. That would be nice. Thank you.”
Immediately he straightened, seemed to grow a little taller. He opened up his bag, pulled out a makeshift table. She watched him as he laid a satin cloth threadbare as penury over the table and then carefully placed the ludicrous hat in the centre. She noticed for the first time that there were noises coming from within the box-bag, urgent scrabbling. He began his introduction:
“Ladies and … well .. for today only a one-time special offer for the lady. The magical mysterious Marvelo will astound and bedazzle you.”
She watched as he produced a deck of crisp new cards, so out of place against his leathery hands. And yet he shuffled the cards with expert skill, his hands and the cards blurring together in an hypnotic rhythm. Their glasses on the table shook slightly with the first roll of thunder.
“Go on, pick a card!” Griet obliged. “Now, remember it … and put it back.”
He re-shuffled and with a sly grin slipped one card from the pack.
“Was your card …. the Ace of Hearts.” Not a question. As if it were a foregone conclusion that he had selected the same card as her.
“Hmm. Really? Are you sure? Look again.”
“It's not the same card.”
“Not to worry, not to worry. Let's try again.” This time he hauled a kicking, scrawny rabbit out of the box.
“Behold!” He proceeded to enact an elaborate routine of demonstrating the authenticity of the box into which he would place the rabbit. Then pushed the kicking creature into the box. As she watched his routine, Griet found the knots that bound her to her life of survival, loosening just a little. He amused her this magician. Watching him, she could almost imagine a life where people did things just for entertainment. Where she might even know people like that. She pushed back from the table, leaning into the rigid contours of the chair. Finally, Marvelo pulled a squirming rabbit out of his hat with a flourish.
“It's not the same rabbit.” Griet pointed out.
Marvelo stared at her.
“Ta dah!” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.
“It's still not the same rabbit.”
“The first rabbit had a black mark on its face. Quite unmistakeable. This one does not.” She did not mean to be unkind. But it was a very poor trick. Marvelo scratched his head as he looked at the rabbit which looked back at him.
“It's just that it's quite hard to find rabbits around here,” he said by way of explanation.
“I know. People are hungry.”
He sat down again at the table.
“You said you grew up here?” he said.
“Yes. I haven't lived here for a long time.”
“Why would anyone live here?”
“I think because they were hated everywhere else.” He continued to look at her. She added, “We were refugees from another place where we were not wanted. Maybe if you spend long enough being chased away, you find a place that no one else wants. Although now, even this place ...”
He nodded. “Still, it must be hard to live here.”
“I'm sorry?” She looked sharply at him.
“Hard to live here?” he said again.
“Oh. Live. Right, I thought you said … never mind.” She shook her head. In the flattened vowels of his accent, she had heard 'leave' – it must be hard to leave here. But she had left. Hadn't she?
“It's not so hard to live here as long as you think living is a thing you must just do before you can die.”
“Indeed,” he acknowledged. “So where are you now?”
She named the city and his eyes lit up.
“Now there's a city for a magician.”
“Maybe that's true.” Thinking of those streets tramped down to the colour of ash, and rising from the ash, that crazy beat. Everybody trying to figure out the steps to their own hustle. She thought of her small apartment in the city. With its leaking air conditioner and the confusion of smells that pulsed through the walls. The dizzying noise. And the constant and desperate craving that was the bass note to the city's rush. And the nights she would spend alone. Always alone. Staring out at the city lights trying to imagine how things might have been different, waiting for something to change.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“I work in a bookstore. Well … it's mostly a bookstore. Sometimes it's something else.” Like everything in the city. Sometimes, in the backroom of the bookstore, men and women clustered around tables, their sweat like a pall in the stuffy room, picking numbers, their voices edged with something that pretended to be hope. “So,” she blustered, uncomfortable with the intimate turn the conversation had taken. “Can you do any other tricks?” This time, the windows rattled with the force of the storm's rumble. In a far corner of the house, something smashed to the floor. Then silence. Like a breath drawn in.
And into that silence, the magician leaned forward. His face so close to hers she could feel his breath on her face. His breath smelled like warm rain-soaked soil. And something else, something darker that she could not name.
“Actually. It's not really the tricks that I'm good at.”
“Well. Then. What is it that you are good at?”
He looked at her for a long moment and she felt him shift again under her eyes, his cheekbones stark as hills against the valleys of his stubbly, sunburned cheeks. “Magic.”
She tried to laugh at the absurdity of it. This strange magician who could not keep a simple card trick in his head, who was incapable of the most basic of misdirection … could do magic? But the laugh lodged in her throat, turning tight.
“Right,” she said, finally pushing herself away from the table. “This calls for something a little stronger. Wait there.” Griet crossed the kitchen to an old cabinet. The drawer fell off its runners as she pulled it out, spilling its contents. She scrabbled around for a tool, finding an old butcher's knife. The blade still sharp. The handle smelling of cured leather. Reaching under the cabinet, almost prostrate, she found what she was looking for and pulled it out. An old wooden box. Her father's secret. Crouching on her heels, Griet used the blade of the knife to prise open the box. The decaying wood splintered and tore away from the rusty lock. Standing, she brandished knife and bottle.
“Mampoer, the real deal,” she exclaimed with satisfaction. The soil was too sour here for the sweet peach trees that her father needed for the mampoer. So she had colluded with him, discreetly bringing him back the best peaches she could find on her monthly trips for supplies. Before she had turned the bakkie into so much scrap metal. He had trusted her with his secret. Once, even showing her the small still he had set up far out in the veld. “This is a real treat, Griet. You are very generous.” Marvelo stood up, taking from her the knife and bottle. He placed the knife on the small magician's table, next to his hat. Griet had a moment of anxiety as she remembered how remote this farmhouse was.
“Shall I pour?” Dismissing her fears, she smiled and nodded her agreement.
He filled their water glasses with the clear liquid, the fumes making their eyes water.
“And what is not life,” he countered. They clinked glasses and downed the mampoer. Griet felt the strong drink warm her.
“Again,” she instructed Marvelo. He obliged.
“Ok, Marvelo,” she said. “What is your real name by the way?”
He looked thoughtful.
“Would it make a difference if I said my name was Fred Jones? Would you believe me a little bit more or a little bit less?” He had stood up again, moved behind the magician's table, as if preparing for another trick.
“Probably less. Let's stick with Marvelo then. So, Marvelo. What magic can you do?”
He gazed at her steadily.
“I call it The Hiatus. There are probably other names for it. That is what I call it.”
Griet stared at him, trying to think through the seductive forgetfulness of the mampoer.
“Hiatus. Like a break, a sort of end of things?”
“The Hiatus. No not an end at all. An in-between place. You know about in-between places, I think.” Not a question. “You don't belong here. You decided that. Do you belong there, in the city?”
“It's my home.” But even as she said it she felt the lie coil around her.
“Griet,” he said her name soft and alluring as a caress. “Tell me.” He moved back to the table, drew the chair close to her, sat down. “Can you remember the last time you felt right, like you were where you were meant to be?”
Griet dropped her eyes to her hands, folding and unfolding on themselves. Here is the church and here is the steeple.
“You're talking nonsense,” she said but her voice lacked conviction. She reached over to the bottle and poured them both another shot.
“Maybe there was a time when you weren't lonely?” he said and a small secret held deep inside her unfurled. She murmured a name into the roll of thunder.
“Yes. Once.” She looked up into the shadowy crevices of Marvelo's eyes. “There was a man.”
A photographer with obsidian eyes and skin that smelled like cinnamon. After all this time the picture of him that she held in her head was faded, and yet her fingers still remembered the exact topography of his face, the long swoop of neck down to his collarbones, the muscles that trembled underneath his skin at her touch. Now, her fingers traced the memory of these contours on the table. “He must have been lost to have come here,” she continued. He had wandered down to their barren valley in search of the perfect shot of utter desolation. Oh yes, this valley was good for that. On the slopes around them burst long grasses and evergreens, Banyan, Gulmohar, woven together by climbing Liana. Just here though, in this small valley of hell, nothing grew, nothing should have lived.
She had been in town, seventeen years old, loading up the bakkie with provisions. She became aware of being watched. Started to feel self-conscious about her bare feet and thin dress. He looked insectile with the camera pressed against his eye, threatening. But when he dropped the camera, there was just a shy smile, those eyes. Later he would show her the images of her that he had shot and she would not recognize the gamine with the long lashes who could carry more than her own weight. For a moment he showed her she was beautiful, strong. He asked her to show him around a bit and she did. Later, when the dark crept over the veld, he whispered to her and she felt her body dissolve, flow over his words and wrap around him. The sugar at the back of the bakkie swarmed with ants, the mielie meal was infested with weevils and the butter had turned rank and green by the time she drove back to the farm. Don't go, he had begged her. But she had.
Her mother had gloated that she was a ruined woman now. No man would want her. And did she really think she would hear again from this vreemdeling? She had dragged Griet off to church three times a week to beg redemption on her knees. Then the photographer had sent her an air ticket, he had not given up on her. Griet's mother had been furious. She had ripped up the ticket and set fire to the pieces. With a grief too deep for tears, Griet's hope shriveled up inside her while her father went out to dig his rows of doomed vegetables in the barren soil of that God-forsaken valley.
“What would have happened if you had stayed with him when he asked you to?” Marvelo asked. Griet stared at him. How much had she said? How much remembered?
“Dis 'n gejaag na wind – like chasing down the wind. How can you ask me that?”
“Tell me. Tell me what happened when you didn't stay with him?” He poured them another glass full of the mampoer. “Tell me.”
What could she say? Everything had happened. And everything had come to this. Nothing.
“My father died and we could not make anything grow. We couldn't survive. She said she had a cousin in Lagos who would help me find work.”
“She – your mother?”
“Yes. She said I must send money back to her.”
It had taken Griet seven days to hitch to the city. She slept in the wells of trucks, under bushes, and once, when she had heard predators, curled up in a tree. She traded her bible, Sunday shoes and dresses for food and water.
The distant cousin had not been overjoyed to see her but had at least seen the possibilities in having a young inexperienced girl around. The first night when he climbed into her makeshift bed, climbed on top her grunting like one of the baboons she used to have to chase from the rows of vegetables, he had placed his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming. After that he didn't need to. She understood the contract. She endured his attentions, going each day into the bookshop under the cousin's apartment where she would spend all day reading. The shop owner watched her for a while before he decided to put her to work in the front of the shop so that he could run his illegal gambling sideline from the back. The cousin faded into the city's background noise. And Griet sent money home to her mother. She had never gone back though. Until now.
“The Hiatus gives you a choice. You can change everything, rewind, roll forward, anything. Let me help you.”
“That's not possible.” She shook her head. But the mampoer flowed like sludge over and through her thoughts.
“It is. Close your eyes. Think back to that moment.” She did. She closed her eyes and thought back to that early morning in the veld. They had lain entwined in the back of the bakkie. The warmth of the early morning sun washing over them. He had held her close, leaned in to kiss her eyes, her nose, her forehead. With each kiss repeating, stay, stay, don't go, stay with me. Griet had felt herself floating away. Away from everything she had ever thought she had known. She had been afraid.
“What if. What if you said yes this time?” he asked. Griet sighed. What if? Before coming back here, Griet had thought she was free. She needed no one and that was freedom of a sort. But what if freedom didn't have to come at the price of isolation?
Her eyes still closed, she smelled the magician as he leaned in again. Close, so close. He smelled like the storm. The thunder drowned out his next words as the first fat drops of rain hit the tin roof.
“Tell me. Tell me how I can change it?”
“The Hiatus is a place. The place where you are now. Everyone gets there at some point. But you got stuck. I know how to free you. You only have to think of what you want. What you truly desire. And the choice that can give you that desire.”
She heard the scrape of his chair as he got up. Felt his hand on her shoulder as he walked around her, behind her. She did not want to open her eyes. She was remembering. Sensations so real she could hardly breath, her heart spreading in her chest.
“I could go back there,” she whispered into the sound of the rain. “I could say yes. I could stay with him.”
Lost in the memory, she felt soft, youthful fingers caress her neck, tenderly pull her head back to expose her neck. She waited for the kiss. If she believed in the magic, The Hiatus, perhaps the kiss would be real. She felt his lips graze her ear as he whispered once more, stay. Outside, the storm held its breath, and the kiss of the knife's blade was a release as real and profound as the kiss her lips remembered.