The other Eden
by André P. Brink (First published in Wegbreek of April 2008 as the last quarter of the article "Grahamstad - stad van wors en oorlog", and available on the Internet in Afrikaans on LitNet; translated into English by Greig Russell; published with permission of the author and LitNet).
One Sunday, a particular friend, Laurie Graham, also one of Grahamstown's "unusual" Afrikaners, took my wife and me to meet the Misses Blackbeard; two ancient little women, both just this side of 80, who lived in a delapidated, but charming old house in the township. Earlier there had been a third sister, sickly and bed-ridden, who lived with them, but of whom there was now no trace. Was she dead? Did she still live? Or do the two just keep the corpse in a bed in the passage, dressed and tended daily, even bringing her breakfast in the morning which is in fact eaten? Perhaps by a monkey from outside, or an ancient, stone-deaf servant, while they carry on undisturbed?
The little farm is encircled by smoking huts and hovels, clamorous children, an occasional outburst of sonorous song, a confusion continuing through day and night. A high fence surrounds the farm, patched with rusty galvanised sheeting and planks, woven through with branches and barbed wire. Within lies a few morgen of eden - one thick thicket which forms a foliage ceiling above; under it flame-red clivias grow in earthenware pots, tubs, drums and galvanised baths, encircled by old spades, disintegrating chests and rolls of wire. Everything lies around in disarray, right up to the walls of the old house, even tumbling over onto the veranda. Everywhere are narrow paths where you dodge and dive between aloes, trees and shrubs. For the rest there is a planless labyrinth of cages like some organism which has developed in all directions by cell division: binding wire, barbed wire, chicken wire, fencing wire, full of holes plugged with planks and galvanised iron sheeting. In the cages is a collection of birds - dikkops, cranes, owls. Over the years they have arrived there with injured legs or wings, whereafter they have been made whole with love and care. And then they have just stayed, in a refuge amidst the clamorous, destructive township. Inside you feel closed off amongst the thick foliage, the flaming flowers, the warble and twitter of the birds, the twilight of the house.
For thirteen years they had a hadedah which was inseparable from them, and a duck which had become blind yet was nevertheless able to find his way faultlessly along the paths to the water trough. The hadedah flew away, but returned a year later to show off his wife and two children. Two owls have lived for many years in a tree at the front door.
The youngest of the two Misses is the talker, as she tells of everything, the small grey head leans forward, her nose large and bony, the skin like rice paper with blue ink blotches. The skin of her throat hangs loose and around the mouth and eyes the skin is wrinkled with age; her hands are knobbly and veined and blotched. But the eyes still live clear and blue within their pink borders. Her sister is stouter; her pettycoat seam does not stick out from under the pale blue dress. Her face is full of haste, downy, long hair and her eyes are small and suspicious.
They have come to a fork in the road; the Group Areas Act will not allow them to remain there. The City Council is going to expropriate the property for a song and they must go. These two, who for their entire lives have offered sanctuary to sick birds, now have no refuge. Just a year or three or five, then in any case they would no longer be there: but civic affairs can't wait. The bird reserve, that cool oasis in the township, must be cleared away. This news they tell us in their little house furnished like an overflowing museum with antique furniture, ornaments and bric-brac: delicate crochet work, paper flowers, painted dead flowers and grass seed, and the most delicate miniature bouquets.
Two people who have floated out of their own time on this island. And who now suddenly do not know where they are to go: life is not what it once was. In their own melancholic way they have become foreigners. Only in Grahamstown is there, in a sense, place for everything and everybody. And that is why it was, certainly in the years that I was there, a place like no other in the country.
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