Every December, my family took a trip down to Plettenberg Bay. We stayed with our family friends, Cimone and her son, Riedwaan. This year, my father booked a chalet deep in the Plett valley, far away from the buzz of the town, in a place called Little Eden. I think he also wanted to give Cimone and Riedwaan a break from their lives, so they joined us. The chalets in Little Eden were far apart. It felt as if we were staying in a lonely jungle. Flowers traced the chalet entrance. My best friend Shannon came too and I could not have been happier to have her. The real interest however, was not the hidden valley we had now adopted as our own or that my mother and Cimone would reminisce over their childhood days. It was Riedwaan.
The first time I met Cimone was in Johannesburg. I was much younger then so my memory of her stay was vague. She came to visit my mother. We knew that she had cancer but no one spoke about it.
The first time I met Riedwaan was in Plett. We were staying at Cimone’s house and Riedwaan was at mosque when we arrived. While we were having lunch, he entered the house and greeted everyone: “Assalaam hu alaikum warahmatullah wa barakatu.” He shook my father’s hand and kissed my mother’s cheek. His light brown skin contrasted with his white kurta. He was tall, muscular and handsome. “He has so much noor on his face,” my mum commented. His hairy chest peeked out of his kurta and his green emerald eyes overwhelmed me every time I looked into them.
He never spoke to me during these holidays. On one of them, he sat in his room the entire week and only came out to eat or have the occasional chat with my father. We were the same age back then, but when I looked into his eyes, I saw a lost boy. After the death of his father and the news that his mother had terminal colon cancer, he became depressed and was diagnosed bi-polar. I made no effort to ask him about it, but I always wanted to.
On another of those trips and years before Little Eden, we were seated at the dinner table one evening. His mother told us that she would take us out to dance. We were excited. Riedwaan looked at her, dropped his fork in his plate and excused himself from the table. Later, outside the club, she explained that after she was diagnosed, he felt that it was God’s way of calling them back to religion. He turned to prayer and she turned to parties. They hardly spoke to each other because he didn’t agree with her “un-Islamic” lifestyle.
Then on another holiday, we did not seen him during our entire stay at his mother’s house, except for our last day. My sister and I were asleep and I felt a tug. I woke up to the green-eyed boy who lived in his room-cave behind the house. I named his room Hira, the cave Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) hid in, where he spoke to God and meditated for forty years until revelation came through Gabriel. Riedwaan smiled at me and in the most charming voice whispered, “Please wake your sister up, I have some place I want to show you.” As we walked in our pajamas that dark Sunday morning, Riedwaan spoke and sang the entire way. The air was dry and the long walk increased the pace of my breathing. He sang snippets of songs we had never heard before. Uncertain of how to respond, we joined his laughter and soaked up the side to him we had never seen on our previous trips. He took us through alleys and underneath a broken bridge. We finally reached the desolate beach in the darkness, hints of light trickled through the sky. He shared his haven with us. The ocean was still as sea gulls chanted peacefully above it. Suddenly the dancing and singing stopped as we sat in prayer lost in the fears and silences the sunrise brought with it. The red, yellow and purple pastels breathed a new life into the dim morning sky. As the tide came in, we looked at each other, our gaze unbroken.
Our African decorated chalet in Little Eden had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a wooden sleeper couch in the open area that consisted of the kitchen and lounge, where Riedwaan and his mother would sleep. We imagined that he would not speak to us but this time things were different – it seemed that unlike all of those past time, he couldn’t stop speaking to us. His jokes were not humorous but what made them funny were the accents in which he told them. He could do all the different South African accents. He was a blend of Coloured and Indian but he had attended white Afrikaner schools from the age of six. There were only three other Muslim families in Plett and as a result, Islam was a dormant part of his upbringing. His teenage years consisted of alcohol, parties and single or married exotic white women. The day his mother told him she had cancer, his world came to an end. He ended his relationship with his girlfriend, his friends and alcohol. He moved in to his cave bedroom and spoke to God for the very first time.
The bathroom was a Roman-styled haven. It was tiled in granite and decorated with natural light from the outside. The sunlight heated the bathroom in the early mornings and glints of light flickered through the glass. It created a vulnerable open experience. The floor was also the bathtub. At first it was a scary thought being naked in the shower with nothing but the elongated trees and lush flora surrounding us. But eventually, we all grew to love it. We each stole a few minutes more in the shower because it felt as though we were standing in a Monet paintings.
Riedwaan would utter words in flawless Quranic Arabic to show us that he was in fact Muslim. He didn’t know Arabic, but he managed to remember the important Arabic phrases easily. These words were often uttered by the “religious” or “practicing” Muslims, which my family was not. I was. My mother mentioned that I would be a psychologist some day and he shouted out confidently “Masha-Allah,” his index finger pointing at me as a preacher would in a sermon.
Eventually, we adjusted to the kind of Muslim he wanted us to see. But it was the kind person we saw that mattered. One morning after breakfast, he joined me on the balcony and asked me to recite a verse in Arabic. I chose a verse from the Quran that I felt was most applicable to his life. “Asharah, opening forth to God. God has opened up your heart to Him, and removed from you the weight that burdened your back. With every hardship is ease. And He repeats once more, with every hardship is ease.”
We spent the first day exploring Little Eden and relaxing. On the second day, we visited an elephant sanctuary and we were allowed to touch the elephants as they roamed freely. I fed a baby elephant and the scaly touch of its trunk created a tickling wetness on my palm. I noticed Riedwaan touching a nearby elephant. He started at the trunk and made his way to its belly. He looked up at me and smiled. I looked back and for the first time, I felt conscious of the way he looked at me.
The evenings in the valley were filled with the smells of my mum’s and Cimone’s home-cooked meals, Riedwaan’s made-up-on-the-spot jokes, and board games. My family mastered five cards, a gambling game. My baby brother always won the money. He inherited this trait from my parents and it didn’t upset them that their son was a gambler. Instead, they celebrated his hunger for money and his ability to read an adult card game.
On the third night, through all the laughter and card game fighting over who won and who didn’t, I was rereading A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. I had intentionally isolated myself from the chaos. After a while, Riedwaan went outside and I followed him. Mostly, I sucked at five cards and had no money, so the thought of something that didn’t involve my family’s bickering interested me. I couldn’t find him. As I was about to head back into the house, he called me. I heard a voice and looked up into the sky, “God is that you?” He giggled and I realised that he was sitting underneath the main balcony. It was built on wooden stilts, creating a dark fortress under it. It made sense that he was hidden. He seemed to enjoy caves that he named his own. I was afraid to join him in there so I sat opposite him instead. “Won’t you please read something out of that book for me, Shameelah?” I examined the cover of my book and flipped through it, unsure of the page I should pick. I confidently asked him to pick a page number. He smiled at me, lines forming on the side of his cheeks, “185,” he said.
I cleared my throat and opened to that page: “… It’s true, she tells him. It’s the friction, of grain against grain. Listen. He does. He frowns. They wait. They hear it again. A groaning sound, when the wind is soft, when it blows hard, a mewling, high-pitched chorus.”
Droplets of rain broke the poetry of the piece and I closed the book and got up to head inside. Riedwaan didn’t follow me, “Aren’t you going to come inside?” I politely asked, trying to avoid the rain. He smiled, “No, I think I’ll stay a bit longer, Shameelah.” He stretched out his fingers and felt the water on his skin.
That evening, I struggled to sleep. I heard a noise from the lounge and I decided to investigate. I entered and noticed Riedwaan asleep with the blanket over his head, his one foot sticking out at the end. Cimone wasn’t in her bed so I went outside to check on her. She was at the bin and didn’t know that I was behind her. She got a fright and I apologized and excused myself because I realised that she was throwing away her colostomy bag. Before we went back in to the chalet, she showed me the most secretive and intimate thing about her. It was the shame she carried around, reminding her of the life she no longer had. “There is nothing more humiliating for a woman than taking a shit in a bag,” she remarked. She lifted her top up, exposing her stomach. I touched the bag; my fingers traced the beige square edges. I looked at her and smiled. I didn’t say anything else because I didn’t want her to think I pitied her, because I did. We all did. We sat on the balcony afterwards and she told me how uncomfortable it was for her to trust a male enough to see her body. Her cancer was so severe when they detected it that they had to remove her large colon, which was replaced with the bag. There was a hole in her stomach, where she now had a new bag stuck over and changed every day. She looked back at the door, to where Riedwaan was asleep, “He hates me because I stopped chemo and radiation.” She wanted to live and see the rest of her life, what was left of it, with Riedwaan. Chemo is a prison apparently. She wasn’t aware of how her refusal of prison placed her son into a deeper one.
On our last day in Little Eden, we decided to go on a hike. Riedwaan led the way while singing his songs that none of us knew. We played I spy and laughed at the silly stories my mum and Cimone told us from their childhood, like the time my mother and Cimone cut the school field fence and charged students R5.00 to bunk. As the walk progressed, Cimone told us about Riedwaan’s father and that he had been murdered.
wSuddenly, my sister shouted, “That’s the same tree we passed an hour ago!” We started to panic when we realised the sun was setting and we were lost. Cimone’s anxiety became the focus because if her bag didn’t get changed, it could explode and she could die. Riedwaan was confident that he knew where we were going. His mother shouted at him. “You don’t know where you are going to Riedwaan. You’re lost!” He remained silent. My father eventually got us back to the chalet.
That night everyone went to bed early because we would be leaving the next morning to Cape Town. Also, the prolonged hike had exhausted us. My sister and Shannon were lightly snoring and I struggled to sleep. I woke up to get some water. Before I left the kitchen, I noticed Riedwaan awake and staring at me. The same stare I had noticed at the elephant park. He covered his head with his blanket and I went back to the room. A few minutes later, I heard my door open. He stood at the side of my bed for a few seconds and then got in next to me. We tried to be silent but nothing would wake my sister and Shannon once they slept. I didn’t move, but I felt oddly comfortable. We didn’t face each other and remained looking at the ceiling. He asked me what my name meant and I explained that in Arabic it is “a person you feel content with”. He took my hand and held it tightly. He whispered to me, “Thank you.” I didn’t know for what, so I remained still. He got up from the bed, took a blanket from the cupboard and we walked out on to the balcony. We lay on our backs, shoulder to shoulder, staring at the emptiness of the starry sky above us. The moment we shared was not sexual, but to this day I struggle to identify what it was. I didn’t know or understand why he wanted to be close to me, but I knew that he needed to. “I was six when the guys barged into the house. My mother rushed me into the cupboard but I could see through it. Three men walked in and one took out his gun and shot my father in the head.” He held my hand tighter. An anxious lump formed in my throat.
“Something is wrong with me, Shameelah. Can I tell you my deepest darkest secret?” I nodded, afraid that I had no choice in the matter. “I think that I killed someone. I can’t remember. I was drunk and I was angry with my mother for something. I took a rock and smashed it against the head of a guy who was irritating my girlfriend. I don’t know for sure though.” He placed his head on my stomach and cried. Suddenly the little boy I always saw was in my arms and I held him as a mother would. He let out one last sentence on that balcony before we went back in. We never spoke about that night again, “I wish God chose me instead of her.”
The sun came up, vomiting heat into our room. He placed the blanket on the floor beside me and slept there. I slept for about two hours that morning before my sister and Shannon woke me up. They were shocked that Riedwaan was asleep in our room but I had no intention of explaining why.
My father loaded the car while my mother and Cimone prepared our final breakfast. Riedwaan went for a walk and I didn’t want to follow him. I decided to fill the large bathtub. My friend wanted to shower but I made her and my sister bathe with me. After the night I had I just wanted to be with the two people I genuinely knew. I had a strange desire to be naked with them as though we were kids. We bathed together and for the first time we saw each other naked. We laughed and recollected the highlights of our trip. Both of them mentioned how much fun Riedwaan was to be around. I agreed with them until I remembered the intense moment I had experienced with him the previous night. For a split second, I thought I saw Riedwaan lurking in the shadows of the Eden valley, watching me as I bathed. It was a look I hadn’t seen in the elephant sanctuary or kitchen.
We bade Little Eden farewell. Saying goodbye to Cimone and Riedwaan felt like the goodbye your parents leeave you with on your first day of primary school. Riedwaan shook my father’s hand and thanked him for the trip. He greeted all of us with a wave goodbye and the beautifully recited, “Assalaam hu alaikum warahmatullah wa barakatu” – peace be upon you with the mercy and the blessings of Allah. As we drove off, I never looked back at the house or Riedwaan.