Crytanthus Ventricosus is a little trumpet-shaped bloom, scarlet as the reddest flame. It rises on a single stalk exactly two weeks after a veldt fire, and blooms for a few days. Pointing down at the blackened earth, it proclaims that all is not lost, that life goes on.
My Grandpa Keith used to walk in the Klein Rivier Mountains behind the seaside town of Hermanus in South Africa. He knew well how after devastation, life does, indeed, go on. He explained how the mountain plants need fire to clear away the senescent fynbos, so that species could re-propagate. He showed me the Fire Lily, the first of the ephemerals that spring to life after a blaze, as we walked on the scorched path after a controlled burn. I imagine now that after the tragic deaths of four of his children and the slow withering of Granny Millie, he recognized in that crimson blossom a relentless progression, some elemental spirit that says, “Go on.”
There was a fortnight in October during which my anxiety and anger were a runaway fire razing my equanimity, wreaking a dark vengeance on all the structures I had carefully built since my divorce. It seemed that all I could do was tie a moistened cloth over my face and beat out each flame that encroached, licking at my door in the high winds of hysteria, the bluster of fundamentalism.
It started in the staff room. My friend, Pam, looked miserable.
“What’s up?” I asked. She shook her head. Tears formed in her eyes.
“Our friend, Andrew, was murdered yesterday. My husband phoned the studio within minutes of his being shot because Andrew was due to deliver some prints. His assistant kept saying, ‘How do I know if the ambulance is coming? How do I know?’ All they took were two mobile phones…”
Andrew Meintjies was a well-known South African photographer. His murder came on the heels of another slaying in April of a well-known personality—Gito Baloi, a supreme gentleman and world-class jazz musician. He was killed for small change.
Pam and I hugged each other in desperation. What was happening to our world?
That same weekend Andrew died, my ex-husband, who has custody of our children aged nine and twelve, phoned me. These calls are typically like fielding a cactus. Past threats have included immigration to Australia, to Germany, reduction of my access, demands for maintenance, and insinuations of neglect.
This call was dramatically different. This time, he tossed me no simple cactus, but a burning bush. He accused me of exposing our children to “pornographic” magazines. I was dazed, horrified. And so hurt. “Come and get the offending material,” I challenged, “and show me, please, wherein lies the porn.”
I handed over the magazines: Gay Pages, the South African lifestyle magazine that features interior decorating trends, holiday destinations, and Constitutional developments affecting homosexuals. I concede that FHM and GQ with their busty girls, skimpy bikinis, and bawdy barroom jokes constitute spice, but True Confessions with its salacious headlines and timid content, has barely a zing.
On Sunday his email arrived:
A number of the magazines have content that is explicitly sexual, obscene, deviant, promiscuous, and repulsive.
Perhaps he had changed his mind about Debbie Does Dallas. He always rather enjoyed that video. I wondered whether his new wife knows of its whereabouts.
. . . thoroughly inappropriate for children to be exposed to without adult supervision, and indeed some of it is unsuitable for them to be exposed to under any circumstances . . . the magazines promote values, norms, and lifestyles that are contrary to those with which the children are being raised, and again, therefore, are unsuitable for careless exposure to the children.
This bit nearly choked me:
I am trying to raise the children to understand and value sexual relationships in the context of Christian marriage. The content of some of these magazines is directly at odds with this.
I wanted to ask about the Christian context of domestic abuse.
I am concerned that the children will pick up a distorted understanding of sex, sexuality, relationships, growing up, development, and the like if they learn about them casually and unintentionally. They must learn about these things in a safe, trusting, and, as far as possible, a controlled environment, where their queries, concerns, and fears can be responded to directly.
On Monday, I woke with a fever, but it was the week of the school’s eightieth anniversary celebration. The choir I instruct was due to perform three times within the week, including a Mass for 1,200 people. I needed to rehearse with the new accompanist, and the children still had to memorize the words. Staying in bed was impossible.
I would have preferred that my doctor did not highlight that this was the third time in six weeks that I had a serious infection. I felt resentful as she reminded me yet again—in her gentle, sensible way—that I had to amend my lifestyle. It irked me that I sounded so defensive explaining why I've worked so hard to pick up the pieces of my life. I blinked back the tears as I told her how I am compelled to write until midnight because the house is so quiet. That I can’t sleep for missing my children.
On Tuesday, a “Private and Confidential” letter arrived in my pigeonhole—an invitation from my boss to discuss the “communication norms” of the school. I clearly had not comprehended these adequately in my recent correspondence with her. As I waited to meet her, I recalled being sent to the principal in Standard Four. I had cheeked the school librarian, who blamed me for destroying Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. It was crazy. I loved the book, which was falling apart when I borrowed it. The humiliation of waiting outside a principal’s office felt too familiar. I wished I didn’t feel like throwing up.
That evening, the water pump in my Mazda started coughing. Foul vapors spewed out from under the bonnet. It sounded expensive. The immediate concern was how to get to the Trinity College of London’s venue the next day, where five of my young students were to perform examinations. Johannesburg’s public transport is limited to perilous minibus taxis that routinely consume all their passengers in hideous accidents.
I asked a student’s mother to take me there on Wednesday. She was gracious about fetching me some distance from her home, yet somehow, I felt awkward. The mid-afternoon traffic was grim. As we crawled across town, I thought about how I envied her stay-at-home-mum status, the affluent lifestyle many white South Africans still enjoy.
The examination venue was in the same suburb where I used to live, an exclusive gated community in upmarket Sandton. On the hot afternoon, my children were probably diving into the pool under the watchful eye of a hired helper. Under the gigantic oaks, I once taught them to swim. The guard wearing a bulletproof vest recognized me at the security checkpoint and greeted me. I wondered if I would even still be alive had I never left that home. After years of feeling suicidal depression, divorce had seemed like a lesser evil. But this was no time for such maudlin pondering.
On entering the exam venue, we were informed that the previous candidate had withdrawn. Instead of having fifteen minutes to collect myself and take a deep breath, we were shown straight in. My hands shook during the first child’s exam. I played wrong notes.
On Thursday, the choir performed. And they did quite well, in fact. My worry about missed entries and forgotten words was for nothing. The flames of my anxiety, at least, finally were dying down.
On Friday, a child psychologist phoned me. She explained that she would be assessing my children. She invited me to discuss the allegations of sexual abuse stemming from their exposure to “pornography.” My rage struck up again, my chest pounded, my fingers went numb.
“I have been framed,” I flared.
“That is entirely possible,” she said, her voice like good rain against the heat of my indignation.
“My ex-husband is hell-bent on torturing me.”
“If I am to help your children, your perspective is essential,” she said. “You owe it to yourself, to your children, to tell me your story.”
I felt the stirring of the Fire Lily in my soul.
© 2004 Liesl Jobson
|Author Bio: LIESL JOBSON lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa as a music teacher. Her writing has appeared in South African literary journals Timbila, New Coin, New Contrast, Live Poets’ Society, and Botsotso, and is forthcoming in Wild Strawberries, Oasis, Cacophony, Gator Springs Gazette, Smokelong Quarterly (USA), lichen literary journal (Canada), and The Journal (UK). Online publications include Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, Pindeldyboz, FriGG, and Opium. She is currently a student in the M.A. in Creative Writing program at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Contact Liesl at email@example.com
||Photo credit: Janene Steenkamp
Artist Bio: See more of Angela Treat Lyon's work here - http://www.Lyon-Art.com and http://www.TheLandofAmmaze.com