Rachel, I Was Baptised
[Translation into English of ‘Ragel is ek gedoop’, from Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het. Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 2008.]
Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptised withal shall ye be baptised. – Mark 10: 39
The snow on the highest peaks of the Nuweveld Mountains was melting. Through Mia’s fogged-up windshield the icy Karoo morning was gradually thawing. Scarf-swaddled passers-by were slowly gaining colour.
It was her first visit to Beaufort West, her first time driving down Donkin Street – the arterial cutting straight through to Johannesburg. The town was bigger than she had imagined, different from how it had seemed in her father’s stories, the winter harsher, the colours bleaker. In her mind, the stories were always in shades of bright orange and sky-blue.
When her father spoke about his mother, the late Grandma Rachel, Mia imagined her as a rare water lily. At other times she was a porcelain doll with long curly eyelashes, like Mademoiselle, the doll on the Albertyn family farm, made in Grandma Rachel’s likeness and dressed in a new outfit every year according to the latest Victorian fashions. Not even the wind could kiss her, or she would break, Mia told a friend when she was a little girl. She believed her Grandma Rachel had been the same.
Always, always in her father’s stories was the implicit comparison between her grandmother and herself. The obvious resemblances were the cascading auburn hair and lithe figures like weeping willow saplings. But there was something else too, something otherworldly that bound them to each other. If she had to draw a picture of her grandma, she would probably be flying, or floating in a sea of blue watercolour. She was not the kind of woman you could put your finger on without her slipping away from your touch; not someone you could necessarily count on.
Perhaps that explained why at times she was almost ashamed of her second name. She kept silent about the name Rachel because she was afraid it would reveal something about her – something she herself did not yet understand.
When Mia stepped out of the car at the address in Donkin Street her father had indicated on the map, she saw that the facade of the house, built in the traditional Karoo style, had been systematically and irrevocably altered since the time her grandma had lived there. Unsightly brown facebricks covered the lower part of the walls, from the dusty sidewalk to the height of the half door, which was flanked by pseudo-Romanesque columns. The section of wall unspoiled by facebricks was painted a glossy hospital-white.
Everything looked different from the way she had imagined it. Beside the front door, blue letters on a white sign proclaimed: Vosloo, Snyman and Co. Accountants and Auditors. She noticed that estate planning was one of the services offered by the firm.
Mr Albertus Snyman seemed surprised when he opened the door for Mia, as if something about her seemed familiar, but he wasn’t quite sure what.
She tried hard to keep the tremor out of her voice. “Actually I just wanted to ask whether you’d let me walk through the house. My grandmother lived here a long time ago. I’m a journalist with Rapport, you see, and I want to write an article about the flood of 1941. It’s exactly sixty years ago this year.”
His gaze softened and he stood aside for her to enter.
Inside, the house was even less as she had imagined it. In her grandmother’s time, before the flood, there had been two separate houses here – a spacious dwelling in front, with, behind it, a smaller cottage for the two white girls from over the mountain. Now it was all one. Only a few of the original thick walls built of raw clay bricks remained, and everything was painted a universal hospital-white.
When Snyman wasn’t looking, she touched the walls to see if they were still wet. Clay took a long time to dry out, she had heard.
From his office, she could hear the dripping of a tap somewhere in a back room and in between, with monotonous regularity, the gurgling of a bath plug. She studied the oldish man seated on the other side of the gleaming blackwood desk. The skin on his forehead was a network of wrinkles above horn-rimmed spectacles. Mounds of paper were stacked between them, some yellow from years of lying undisturbed.
From the high ceiling, modern fluorescent lights beamed down on his moth-grey hair. On the wall to his right hung a framed copy of a text from Psalm 42: As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God!
He looked up from the yellowed title deed in front of him, brought by a messenger at his request.
“Eindelik – At Last – that’s the name of the house where we are sitting at present – was registered in your grandmother Rachel’s name in 1933 for seven hundred pounds sterling. She and your grandfather were married out of community of property. The house was sold in 1941.”
On a white writing pad he had produced from somewhere among the stacked documents, he made a sketch of Eindelik as it once must have looked. His hand flew across the paper like that of a conjurer. Mia closed her eyes. It will make you see more clearly, her father had told her.
“There used to be a wisteria where this room is today,” Snyman’s voice drifted towards her. Wisteria – blue rain, like blue teardrops, she thought. A damp smell rose up in her nostrils. A smell of earth and petals. She heard rain on the tin roof overhead; the drops became a melody.
Deep in the folds of the Nuweveld Mountains, kilometres from where they were sitting, a cloud was pouring out its insides. She saw the level of the Gamka rising and the seething brown mass thundering down Church Street. In Donkin Street a newborn baby girl was ripped from the desperate grasp of her mother. Furniture, shop counters, children’s toys and petrol drums were swept along the streets.
Sentence by sentence the story came back to her the way her father had once told it around the dinner table. He had spoken slowly while his potatoes grew cold. Every now and then he would stop to give Mia a dazed look, as if he were peering at her through a dense layer of fog. Time and again she had to call him back: “And then, daddy?”
“Then the white girls, Susan and Maria, took my sister and me out on the front porch. The porch was only slightly above street level.”
It was as if she knew the story even before he told it, as if she had dreamed it a thousand times. In the silences between her father’s words she filled in some of the details: The six-year-old boy stood shivering in the misty drizzle. He watched as the water washed over his feet and those of his elder sister.
“Around us people had dragged up sandbags and stacked them in front of closed doors,” her father said. “Our porch was one or two steps higher than the sidewalk. At that stage the porch was only just above the water level, but the water was steadily rising and we knew it was rising.
“It was the first time in the history of the town that people were going to miss the Communion Service, or Nagmaal. They had come from far and wide for Nagmaal Sunday; some were even sleeping in tents in the vicinity of the church. Four babies were going to be baptised that Sunday, but it was the one occasion when the sacrament would not be received.”
Deep in the belly of the house Rachel struggled to open her eyes. What she saw was mostly grey, interspersed with bits of silver. Her mouth was dry. She tried to get up, but the greyness overwhelmed her. She lay watching the silver specks bearing down on her like stars, like rockets. How pretty, she thought.
Then the stars faded and the morning sun filtered through. The light was pinpricks, piercing her eyes. Her ringless hand felt for the bedside table and last night’s bottle of gin. The liquid was warm hands, stroking her body.
She pulled a comb through her hair and put on a silken dressing gown over her white nightdress. She staggered to the front room, the walls threatening to fall in on her. On the porch her children sat transfixed by the sight of the rising water. The street had turned into a river.
Mia’s father stared straight ahead. “My mother thought the right . . .” He searched to find the words. “My mother saw fit to open the front door for the water to come in.”
In her shiny nightclothes, Rachel walked to the front door, a sleepwalker. Her hand closed round the brass doorknob. She opened the door and the morning light suffused her hair. She stepped outside, stood swaying in the brown wetness that had dammed up on the porch. Her nightgown clung to her body, her hair was plastered to her face.
She turned, saw the water pushing over the threshold onto the wooden floor. She did not see her children sitting on the porch wall, cold and bewildered.
Mia’s father’s voice came from afar: “From the porch we saw all kinds of things floating down the main street – there was even a bobbing crate with a wet cat. The water became stronger and stronger.”
Inside the house it echoed, like water pouring into the hull of a sinking ship. Chairs, ivory elephants, china cats and memorabilia of the Voortrekker centenary celebrations came to life. The costly Victorian furniture was newly upholstered in a brown layer of river sludge. A subaquatic sound of rushing water pervaded room after room. Brass and gold ornaments glittered like pirates’ treasure.
There was a blush on Rachel’s cheeks, her eyes were flashing. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Muddy water licked at her calves as she stepped back into the house. Furniture brushed past her, a framed picture of her young son riding on a toy elephant, another of her as a young girl, holding a freshly picked rose.
She lurched forward. She fell and the water engulfed her. She gave herself over. The lace trim of her nightgown rose to the surface as she sank to the bottom.
Mia’s father never wanted to finish the story the way Mia thought a story should end. His inevitable ending – reflecting the true course of events – was blunt and open and gloomy.
“There were a great many capable townsmen who rolled up their trouser legs. The water reached up to their waists. Some of them came and carried my mother, my sister and me to the second floor of the Kingsley Hotel.”
He remained silent for a long time, his index finger rubbing the rim of his wine glass. “I can’t remember much of what happened after that. We must have stayed in the hotel for a while. The house wasn’t only wet through, the flood had also carried with it a layer of silt.”
Silence again. Mia wished she could touch her father.
His finger pressed harder on the rim of the glass. “It was always the Gilbeys at night, especially when my father went away. We never . . . really knew why.”
He sighed. “My father bought a plot in the new housing development, where he built a house, Klaarpraat – Enough Said. My mother loved Eindelik. She liked the old house and life in the town centre. But my father and others told her Eindelik had become a health hazard. One could get rheumatic fever from the moisture. So the house was sold.”
A pause. “My mother was often unwell during that time.”
Snyman sat behind his yellowed papers, pen in hand. Mia no longer smelled the wisteria; the walls were closing in around her.
Without taking much in, she accompanied him through the other rooms – all office space now, with bespectacled men protruding from behind stacks of paper.
In the back garden, where her grandma’s pet turkey used to scratch in the soil, she looked for her father’s number on her cellphone. The town had thawed out to a warm orange. Scarves and hats were unravelling from strangers’ bodies. Top buttons were undone to let in the sun and the light and the air.
The phone rang for a long time, but her father didn’t answer.
When she redialled, he picked up. “Have you got your story?” His voice sounded strangely wistful.
She swallowed. “Yes.”
She drove to the hotel, poured herself a glass of red wine and opened the taps of the shower wide. Solemnly she undressed, putting her clothes in the wardrobe in neat piles, as if this were her new home.
She drank thirstily, so that even her soft palate seemed to contract, then poured the rest of the glass down her throat.
In the shower the water washed over her forehead, her neck, her breasts. She watched as it dammed up in her navel. She closed the tap and put her finger in the small hollow in her stomach. Lightly she touched her forehead, then the area above each breast.
She had to concentrate hard to keep her voice free from despair: “Rachel, I was baptised.”
By Elsa Silke