The Child Is Not Dead (Chapter Three)

February 5, 2010

The woman awakened inside her own corpse the night of July nineteen, nineteen sixty-five, five days before her twenty-sixth birthday; the night that Ingrid Jonker walked out of the mental institution at Volkenburg, (refusing to die in the same place as her mother before her), seamlessly progressed from rocky shoreline through rough sand that glinted and crunched with the brittle shells of dead mollusks, on into the sea at Green Point. And kept on walking. Just as she always said she would.

As the surf shushed back and forth, sucking Ingrid’s sodden body farther and farther out to sea, and then rushed back to crash on the shore without her, it created great reverberations of sorrow and regret that rippled up the beach under a shifting blanket of sand like some subterranean serpent. When these waves of loss, blown shoreward by Ingrid’s final exhalations reached the main road they slithered under the surface tar and followed the white line on the highway all the way to Bantry Bay where the woman, Ingrid’s friend, lay sleeping. Reaching the foundations of her apartment, they found an opening in the plumbing, squeezed through and rushed upwards into the woman’s bedroom.

The woman was lying on her back, alone on the big mattress on the floor; her new husband was in Paris. Her body felt dense and heavy as stone. She felt the flesh sliding off the bones of her face like melting wax, pooling on the pillow beneath her head. The exposed bones of her skull felt sharp and freezing cold. She wanted to raise her hands to her face and catch the sliding flesh, push it back in place, but although she strived with all her might, her arms would not obey. She could not move. She wondered why she was still there, if she was dead. Then the child in her womb fluttered like an anguished butterfly and she knew that it was alive. And so was she.

The next morning, (or was it already two days later?) there was a knock at the door. Anna Jonker, who lived in the flat opposite, stood in her own doorway with Jack Cope, Ingrid’s sometime lover and translator of her poems. Anna wore a knee-length white nightgown, no whiter than her face. Jack stood slightly behind her, saying nothing, solemn and frozen, as Anna explained that Ingrid had drowned herself. Just as she always said she would.

Pale, grief drenched, clear tears seeped slowly down Anna’s face and between her thighs, and ammoniac clouds of sex clothed in sibling solace wafted across the passageway. Sister and lover had mourned in each other.

The woman did not know what to say; Ingrid had always wanted to be dead, it seemed. There was a poem. She could not remember the words; something about carpenter, carpenter, build me a coffin. And yet Ingrid seemed so alive, almost incandescent at times, with her great, dark eyes and her mop of blonde little-girl curls, sitting on the beach at Saunder’s Rocks with Jack and Uys Krige and her special friend, Bambi, who looked just like a Bambi—all big eyes and round little brown body bursting out of a tiny bikini.

It was strange how all these renowned Afrikaner writers took the younger woman into their fold, practically adopted her, after Ingrid brought her into their midst. The woman had resisted with all her might the Afrikaans language; language of the Oppressor. Once they all took her to visit with Mary Renault who lived in a little cottage on Clifton beach with her lover. The two ladies, middle aged and comfortable, served tea and shortcake biscuits. Until then, she had not thought of lesbians ever being middle-aged. All the women that she had met at Pepys, the gay enclave on the rocks at Bantry Bay, years ago, at the time of her first marriage, were young and feisty and often beautiful. And full of humor. “Don’t worry, darling,” when she only dipped her toes into the freezing surf. “Only bull-dykes go into the big waves!”

One of them, a great big woman, who with ruthless efficiency organized the office and pampered the person of surgeon Christiaan Barnard—already famous for having performed the first heart-transplant—fell hopelessly in love with the woman. She wrote her an anguished and yearning letter, which the woman, accustomed to the ban on reading another’s correspondence that ruled in her childhood home, left carelessly lying around.

Her first husband was a man incapable of addressing any situation that hinted of emotion. When he surreptitiously read the pitiful outpouring of feeling, he visited his father-in-law and showed him the letter.

In cahoots with her parents, her husband was desperately doing all in his power to prevent her from leaving the marriage. Intimidation seemed to work, especially when all three threatened her with the loss of her child.

When the woman’s father walked into her home, letter in hand and furiously hit her right across the living room, her husband sat in a chair and mutely watched. More than injury, she felt deeply mortified for both men. Their complicit and unseemly behavior shocked her into silence. She left shortly after; tucking her baby under her arm, she hitch-hiked back to her parents’ home.

The woman’s husband and her parents made good their threat, and attained physical custody of her little boy. Or rather, her parents did. Her husband, having successfully removed the child from her control, slipped away into a new relationship and never resurfaced.

#

Almost four years later, when she was already installed in a second marriage, no happier than the first, she found herself confiding in Ingrid. They had been discussing how the tortured relationships with their fathers seemed to lead to endless, tortured relationships with men. Ingrid’s revelations about the tragic circumstances of her life were so open and guileless. Was it being a writer that eased the way to uncensored confession? The woman was disarmed. Encouraged by Ingrid’s frankness she abandoned reticence.

The two of them sat on Clifton beach in the sun and the heat and the sparkle of a Sunday in Cape Town. They talked at length about their commonality of experience; tyrannical fathers who would not love them; lost babies they could not love. Ingrid’s devastation was complete. The unrelenting coldness of Ingrid’s father, a member of parliament in the notoriously racist Nationalist Party, was furious at the contradictory beliefs that his daughter espoused in her heart-rending poetry; outraged that she dared to challenge his political stance. Ingrid grieved so about her father, she almost always just wanted to die. The woman only grieved enough about her own father, a doctor, to almost always want to run away. Ingrid seemed a lot more devastated about her one abortion than the woman about her two. Soft-hearted Ingrid was wracked with pain and guilt. The woman felt pain, but little guilt. She wanted to believe that one could not destroy a soul; only recycle it.

The desperate yearning the woman lavished on her father was tempered by the vulnerability and weakness he revealed when she pulled the second baby out of her womb.

#

How did this conversation get from unrequited love for living fathers to anguished loss of still-born babies? — They had each chased infants from their wombs but were helpless to pull from their hearts their hopeless filial devotion. The two women sat huddled together in the sand, complicit in their parallel destinies. Chilled sangria in plastic vacuum containers encouraged increasingly detailed accounts.

“Tell me about it, Skat.” said Ingrid, having told her own story of the daughter she bore, then the fetus she denied. By now they were both a little tearful. The moisture on their cheeks sizzled in the sun. They were infused with the melancholy of memory mixed with a strange contentment at finding a sympathetic confidante.

Getting pregnant once again with a man whose only wish was to leave her, introduced the woman to her first trip to Europe.

She was mortified when she missed her period. Only ten days before her reluctant lover had visited her, there on the grassy slopes outside the old airplane hanger that had been converted to a dance studio housing the University Ballet. In between her morning class and afternoon rehearsal, he informed her that he was leaving for Paris and did not intend to see her again. His words thudded into her chest like bullets. They seemed to take forever to implode into meaning. They then rose out of her throat in strangled hiccups. Humiliated and anguished, she sobbed her protest with no regard for dignity or pride. To no avail; his face became etched in stone, his gaze distant; he left.

She sobbed her way all through the fourth act of Swan Lake, third from the front, just ahead of Juliet, the ditzy English girl who, vague as ever, whispered over her shoulder in her jammy accent “I say, what comes next?”

What came next for her was more than a week of a relentlessly aching heart. She wished she could just fade away and die, like those Victorians who expired of Green Sickness and lost love. But no, not only was she rudely healthy, what with all the dance training and discipline, she was pregnant. To her horror she discovered that she had had two periods while already pregnant. She was into not her first, but almost third month. Her parents had an unconditional response; “You have had your chance. If you disgrace us by having this child, your sister will never find a husband.” Abortions in South Africa were illegal and expensive. Her irritated lover ordered her to get on a flight to Paris.

#

Paris was wintry dark; dirty slush underfoot had her skidding and teetering on uncertain feet, insecure and lost, inside and out. She was staying in the man’s room at the Cité Universitaire. Because this was strictly against rules, she had to leave early each morning and could only return with him at night when he was through with whatever occupied him all day. She saw him at midday when he took her to eat at the kosher student restaurant near Odeon. On days when the rain let up, she explored Paris, alone and in spite of everything, enthralled. At other times, when the relentless icy drizzle made walking a misery, she haunted the American library. Here she discovered Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin and James Purdy. She devoured book after book in between meals of a constant sameness and nights of chilly estrangement. He twice took her visiting; once with an American couple who lived on the left bank.

The visit was an eye-opener. Conversation was lively and argumentative. She was amazed to hear the woman accuse her guest of Fascism when he expounded on his rigid theories about the purity of race (in his case, the Jewish race). She wished she had the courage to challenge him thus. She habitually resorted to irrational, emotional protest; skittering around the subject, throwing metaphors into the mess, hinting and alluding. Anything to avoid blatant accusation; as if it were possible to throw at the other an emotional Koan; have him arrive at some sort of epiphany and emerge the wiser, feelings intact.

She also admired the way the American woman, eyes glinting, black curls bouncing, insisted that she would not, in any circumstance, tolerate infidelity on the part of her short, balding husband (who looked much too mild and good-natured to do anything of the sort). “His body is my pleasure, damnit!”

Their tiny, one room apartment had no bathtub and the bold, feisty little ex-patriot stood on a towel at the kitchen sink, washing under her unshaved armpits while the men went out shopping for dinner supplies.

Another time he took her to visit Raymond Duncan in his atelier. Isadora’s brother, unfazed by the passage of time or the inclement weather, stalked up and down and circled the room in heavy leather sandals and a long white toga, his grey locks straggling onto stooped shoulders; a Bohemian for all seasons. At one end of the room, installed Indian-fashion on a hand-woven rug sat his geriatric harem; two shrunken ladies, equally grey, uniformly grey; skin and eyes and hair, silent as smoke. They were surrounded by little piles of rushes and colored wool that they applied to ongoing creations. Their hair flowed down the backs of their robes and their robes flowed down to the floor and pooled around brittle knees. One of them had a wreath of slightly tarnished silvery leaves binding her forehead, the other long earrings that clinked softly on the clasps of her toga when she moved her head. Sartorial nostalgia ruled. Raymond’s muses contributed little to the conversation and concentrated on their industrious weaving and basketwork; twin Penelopes, patiently waiting for their hero to end his circumambulatory Odyssey and return to their side. They stopped only to serve little cups of hot Negus, made from vin ordinaire, cloves and plenty of sugar. All discourse was conducted by the two men.

At the end of her first week in Paris, increasing depression and worse weather resulted in her coming down with the flu. Now the man showed some compassion. He allowed her to remain in the room all day, and came home bearing various delicacies from a nearby traiteur; marinated mushrooms, carrot and celery râpe, a baguette and her first taste of chèvre. But her feverish condition could not stall the inevitable visit to “le docteur”, a balding little man with soft brown eyes and a rumpled shirt, peppered with scattered flecks of black tobacco from the pack of Gauloise that protruded from a frayed pocket. The hems of his trousers were also slightly frayed. He did not appear to be profiting overmuch from his illegal operations. He looked at her lugubriously and shook his head. “Désolé, mademoiselle. Trop tard.” She tried to quell the surge of relief she felt; the sudden rise of spirits and hopefulness that momentarily warmed her heart. She pushed away the thought that she would be overjoyed to find all avenues blocked, and the bearing of this child inevitable.

But perhaps “Trop tard” in France would be overlooked in Switzerland.

#

The second-class carriage on the train to Switzerland was freezing. Heat coming from the vents near their feet scalded their lower legs, and then seemed to evaporate into the frigid air. By the time they reached their destination, her fever had escalated to a shuddering, sweaty apotheosis, almost mystical in its virulence. The streets of the little village rose like Everest before her. To her trembling, boneless legs they presented an impossible verticality. There was a high ringing in her ears and the booming tones of church bells crescendoed in her skull from delirium to a hallucinatory coda. The rooftops seemed to vibrate and sway in time to the celestial music that pounded in her aching head. He walked ahead of her clucking in annoyance at her impossibly slow progress. She had no idea where they were or who they finally saw. It seemed that there was a gap in sequence—as if the needle on a recording of ringing bells had skipped, and she found herself back in Paris; in bed and still pregnant. There was nothing for it but to return to Cape Town. Mission unaccomplished.

#

Back in her parents’ home, the impasse reached critical mass. Her mother wrung her hands and sobbed, then held them out to show her how they trembled. Imploring her to witness the effect her horribly selfish stance was inflicting on her mother’s nerves, not to mention the devastation it was wreaking on her poor, innocent sister’s chances for marriage. She repeated again and again her whining refrain; “You’ve had your chance. You’ve had your chance.” Each repetition caused her voice to rise and her hands to tremble more violently. As the maternal lament escalated and the trembling accelerated to near-palsy, her father grew quieter and darker until he delivered the final ultimatum; she was to “do something about this mess” or leave. Determined to carry the infant to term, she went into her childhood bedroom and packed.

Jennifer, a fellow-teacher on the staff of the ballroom studio where they both taught; endless days of quick-quick-slow and money-back-guaranteed contracts with Arthur Murray, (teachers get a commission and lessons on American salesmanship) showed unconditional warmth and generosity and welcomed her into her guest-room, assuring her that she could stay as long as she needed. She was living in the moment. She had no idea as to how she was going to be able raise this child. She knew that her employer would allow her to continue teaching until her confinement, and she was certain to be able to return very shortly after. But then, what?

After nearly another month had passed, the man visited her at her new home. He told her that he wanted nothing to do with the child, but would take responsibility for its immediate needs. She would receive a check every month. He did not stipulate the amount.

She sat, frozen, listening to the fading echo of his footsteps as he walked out. For some reason, unfathomable to her, the idea of his being burdened by two beings that he neither loved nor wanted in his life, the idea of that monthly check, shook her more profoundly than her family’s ultimatum. She had endured her family’s rejection and disapproval all her life. It had become part of her; she expected no less. In a way it had formed her; the refusal to support her desire to dance had fostered a fierce independence. She had worked since the age of sixteen to pay her own way. She had learned that anything and everything she needed could be achieved without help or support. The realization that she would now be rendered dependent and helpless in this situation slowly overtook her in a dark cloud. She sat there and contemplated the future that loomed before her, and worse, before the child. In a society where illegitimacy was unheard of in the White population, this child would have no father, no grandparents, and no family. She thought of the years of pain she had suffered at the rejection of her own family, and she at least was legitimate. The doubts crept in; she started to question her own motives in going forth. The horns of the dilemma pierced her womb and her heart; no matter what she decided, the decision would be wrong. She decided to take the path of least resistance. She packed her small suitcase once again and got on the Wynberg bus. She sat on the long banquette close to the doors where she could survey her suitcase in the alcove under the stairs.

As the crowded vehicle pulled away from the bus stop, a colored youth came running after it, caught the pole on the boarding platform and swung himself up. The white conductor came hurtling down the steps from the upper level, enraged. Braking his body on the last two steps and hanging onto the banister for support, he viciously lashed out with his feet, stomping on the transgressor’s hands until the boy released his grip and fell backwards into the roadway, rolling desperately out of the way of oncoming traffic. He landed in the gutter and lay curled in a fetal position. She cried out in protest, tears pouring down her face. A dozen faces in the White’s-Only bottom level turned to her in disapproval, and in chorus, admonished her unseemly display. She sat there, mute with horror; the violence became a catalyst that tore open the poisonous boil that disfigured the face of this beautiful country. The putrescence boiled over her until the accumulated guilt—of the country, the conductor and not least, her own; acquiescent prisoners of cowardice all—left her shaking like her mother’s hands.

She let herself into her parents’ home. It was silent; the maid in her outside room, taking her afternoon break, her mother, happily morphed from grandmotherhood into resurrected motherhood, out at the park with her little boy. As she crept down the corridor past her parents’ room, through the crack in the door she saw her father seated at the side of his bed, his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs. She silently continued along the passage into the dining room and continued the circle, through the living room and out the front door. She could not expose the anguish of the man in the bedroom, alone with the secret of the crack in his mask. She would fight this battle, no less alone than he. She thought of Athena, the daughter who sprang in full armor from Zeus’ head. What a migraine must have birthed her!

When she reentered she slammed the front door loudly. Her father came from his room, erect and stern as ever. In even tones, he told her he would help her. He had enlisted the help of a fellow physician and colleague, the gynecologist who had delivered her boy. The gynecologist would attend to her when the illegal procedure had succeeded. Once in labor, she could legitimately enter a hospital, and be treated. She tried not to think of the humiliation her strictly law-abiding and ethical father must have suffered in order to elicit the complicity of his colleague. She tried to avoid the realization of how these men, who made the rules, could bend them to self-interest and a personal agenda. When her father told her that he would drive her to the abortionist the next day, his feet, so recently exposed as clay, seemed to crack and crumble into the dust of expedience. In her heart she knew that his righteousness had nothing to stand on.

#

Her father drove her across town to the poorer section of Sea Point. He drove in silence until he pulled over in a quiet side street. He told her, without turning to face her that the house was two blocks down, and around the corner. She was to knock on the door of number twenty-three. The woman was expecting her. He would wait for her here. Neither of them could face his shame… They spoke without looking at each other.

She climbed out of the passenger seat and made off down the hot street, the only sound that of her heels clicking on the sidewalk. Children had taken advantage of the large stone squares and drawn a red crayon hopscotch, partially melted and scuffed into smudged bloodstains underfoot.

The woman who peeked around the door of number twenty-three had tight permed curls, peroxided into a straw nest. Her face was round and lined, with the leathery, sun weathered skin of a rural Afrikaner. She wore a faded housedress with a drooping hem, covered by a large floral apron. A pair of bright pink rubber gloves protruded out of the front pocket. Her feet were stuffed into felt slippers, the heels tramped down, with holes cut out to accommodate her bunions. She led the pregnant woman into the kitchen, which was dreary but relatively clean. Washed dishes lay in a plastic container to drain. The old gas stove heated a large pot of water that sent steam into the room and fogged up the small panes of glass in the window over the sink. The cracked linoleum on the floor had been covered with sheets of newspaper.

“I’m sorry, Lovie, but I must ask you to pay me before we begin. Siestog, it makes me feel bad, but you don’t know what some girls do once it’s all over. They know I can’t go to the police, so they try to cheat me.” She took the envelope with the folded bills, glanced in briefly as she riffled through them and put the money away in a cupboard filled with cans of mackerel in tomato sauce, condensed milk and bags of rooibos tea.

The woman was advised to avoid stepping on the paper as she removed her shoes and her panties. She was told, kindly but firmly to lie down on the newspaper, pull up her skirts and bend her knees. The woman poured an amount of previously boiled water into a plastic bucket and added soap flakes. She kept up a constant stream of irrelevant chitchat, intended to calm and reassure as she prepared her equipment and waited for the water to cool. She poured the soapy solution into a rubber enema bag and fitted on the nozzle, which she retrieved from the large pot of hot water on the stove.

“This is going to hurt a bit, Skatjie. Just try to relax when it cramps and please, don’t make any noise. OK? Tell me when you feel really full.” She pulled on the pink rubber gloves and gently slid the nozzle into the woman’s vagina. The woman took huge breaths and silently endured. She closed her eyes and looked into the red sunburst in her head. She did not know what was worse; the wrenching cramps or the steadily increasing feeling of fullness that threatened to burst her open like ripe fruit. When she could take no more she gasped out “Enough!”

The woman handed her a towel to wipe herself, then her panties. She helped her to sitting and then to standing.

“If you have any problems, you must go to the doctor, Skatjie. You can’t come back here. And you can’t tell anyone. You are going to be OK. I can tell. You are strong and healthy. Pray to Jesus. He will protect you. He is kind, and will ask his father to forgive you.”

The woman made her slow way out into the afternoon. Children home from school were out playing, shrieking and laughing; the girls skipping up and down the hopscotch squares, the boys playing cricket in the street with a plank of wood and a tennis ball. An infant sat belted into a stroller on the sidewalk, thumb in mouth, a skipping rope dangling from the handles of his battered carriage. The woman had to walk in a wide circle to avoid them. She reached her father’s car and slowly slid in like an old woman. Her father said nothing; his face parchment white, he started the car and drove them home.

When the pains started they were seated at the evening meal, and dessert had not yet been served. It was her mother’s specialty, and favorite dessert; steamed ginger pudding with English custard. The woman had the outlandish thought that if she revealed her condition too soon, her mother would be catapulted into obligatory hysteria and refuse to eat her favorite dessert. She decided to wait until everyone had finished the meal before instigating the inevitable drama. Sure enough, her departure for the hospital was accompanied by shrieks and heart-rending pleas for everyone to observe the agony visited on her long-suffering mother.

As the front door closed on the noisy lament, she sneaked a glance at her father who closed his eyes and breathed a sigh.

By the time they reached the hospital, night had fallen. She was shown into a private room. Her father returned home. She was to stay there until morning.

Of all the floors in the hospital, only here did unfettered optimism reign. In this place where fear was overcome by hope, and birth conquered death, she sat fearful, awaiting death to emerge from her body ; An anomaly and an insult with a private room.

She felt disconnected and feverish. The light hurt her eyes and the energy in the room seemed to crackle and spark around the periphery of her vision; an incipient migraine threatened. The cramps were coming faster and when the nurse helped her into a robe and settled her in the bed she felt a wash of shame for imposing on the woman’s duties. She thought that all the other women who were there, giving birth to healthy infants, had a more legitimate claim on the attention of the staff. The nurse was kindly, but noncommittal. She gave no indication that she was aware of the circumstances, but she left the room readily enough when the woman told her that she would ring if she needed anything. All she wanted right now was a bedpan.

Alone, she lay against the pillows, her knees drawn up, and gazed at the ceiling. She could hear muted footsteps in the outside corridor, muffled voices from other rooms mixed with occasional whimpers from laboring women and once, the lusty protest of a newborn. The infant’s cry pierced the fog in her head and the contractions intensified. There was a pop in her lower belly and hot fluid seeped between her legs. She felt an irresistible urge to sit up and squatted over the bedpan like an animal. She vaguely wondered why women were made to lie down when being confined. Her body was sure about how to do this.

She gave birth to a little, waxen doll. Lying there on the cold metal, curled up in fragile perfection, it resembled an artifact, created of something other than flesh. She could not remember if it had ever moved in her body; ever fluttered beneath her heart. She sat, immobile until she could bear to look at it no more. She rang for the nurse. She asked the nurse to look and tell her the sex of the baby. When the woman answered that it was a boy, she lay down and turned her head to the wall.

A week later the man asked to meet with her. Having once changed his mind about providing for the infant, he now took a righteous stand and accused her of killing his child.

#

All this poured out of her that Sunday on the beach. “What do you think they do with the babies?” she asked Ingrid. “Do they throw them away?”

“Siestog,” said Ingrid “Don’t worry, Skat. They can’t throw him away. Not really. Everything goes to the sea. Like me. One day, me too, I’m going into the sea. Going to drink a lekker big bottle of wine and just keep walking. But not today; not yet. Today I’m just going for a swim.”

Ingrid’s eyes lit up with laughter as the two of them ran into the freezing surf. There was no cold like the frigid sea this side of the Cape. In moments their feet ached to the bone. They tore off into the fine, powdery sand of a blinding whiteness that hurt the eyes, and of texture so fine it squeaked under their running feet. The cold of the sea and the heat of the sand confused their limbs with tingling frissons as they turned from the blue of the ocean and ran up the beach into the blue of the looming mountains, fathers forgotten.

#

It was later reported that when Ingrid’s father was told of her death, he grunted. “Ag” he said, “you can throw her back in the sea for all I care.”

But Ingrid’s death, like that of Sylvia Plath, infused life into her legacy. The sea that carried her away, and then rolled her back home to the beach, still pounded on the Cape’s shore when Nelson Mandela, in his State of the Nation Address to Parliament, nearly thirty years after her death, read one of her poems “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga.”

The child is not dead

The child lifts his fists against his mother

Who shouts Africa! Shouts the breath

Of freedom and the veld

In the locations of the cordoned heart.

—For Ingrid Jonker 1933-1965

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