1948

THE  SALAMANDER

by

Hilda. E. South.

 

The Cape Province stream which is named after the flowering Keur tree runs its length from the Tzitzikama Mountains between great and precipitous hills to the sea.  As well as Keurbooms it also has Yellowwoods bedecked with stringy, ancient, mossy beards.  Here and there an old giant, fallen half in, half out of water, is made use of by the Bank Cormorant, which, its drying wings extended like sails, observes dispassionately any form of activity that may occur.  Arriving at the coast, hills become headlands rooted in flat, choking sands into which the Keurbooms River debouches, and here in 1947 a causeway allowed but one ineffective entry to tidal flow.

Across this causeway, over the flats, Michael, his wife and his child moved at the latter's pace to walk up a road leading to farmland on higher ground. This earth track, originally made and followed through long ages by great elephant herds migrating annually from mountain forests to the southern sea, suited the bullock teams of the first European pioneers - so well placed, so wide, so even the gradients that many parts of it are in use to this day.  Michael, Jean and the child saw wheel ruts and washouts in the deteriorating road.

"Just the occasional farm cart nowadays.  What a fine sight it must have been to see a great herd coming down to have a seaside holiday and to splash and play in the water" Jean suggested, her eye on the small girl.

"Not only carts!" exclaimed Michael.  "There are footprints too."  They gazed at short, broad prints of bare feet.

On top of the hill the maker of these marks, a sturdy Cape Coloured girl, was seen to traverse a field planted with pumpkins. The family turned to admire the view... a dark blue sea, white clouds and blue sky above, the township of Plettenberg Bay fastened narrowly between these and the Tzitzikama Mountains crowding the strand.

"If only you didn't work in a mine!  I wish we could live in this place for ever!"

"But I would miss my friends!" urged the little girl, whose name was Janet.

"We’d better set off for home tomorrow" agreed her father, taking her small hand in his, and turning again to the old elephant path.

As she descended Jean realized she was moving more comfortably; the abdominal aches from which she had been suffering for a fortnight or so had ceased.  Perhaps she was pregnant.  What a lovely day, what a beautiful place, what fortunate circumstances in which to be aware of a new life beginning!

She did not know for some time that here in Cape Province she had contracted infective hepatitis.

**        **        **        **

The journey home took the best part of a week.  First they went to Knysna; on by train to Cape Town; through the dry Karroo; across the Limpopo - wide, slow-flowing, sown with water-plants on which trod preoccupied, long-toed lily-waders; into Rhodesia's thornbush country, studded with native kraals; across the bridge where in full view the mighty Zambezi hurls raging, swollen waters over Victoria Falls.  Past this awesome vision the train moved slowly, reluctantly.

An African by the rails muttered: "M'Dala!  M'Dala!" (Old one!)

After more than five days' travel, arrival home for the three travellers was joy greater even than its anticipation. George, James and Paul greeted the family with the innate courtesy and dignity of the African.  There was a feeling of excitement and welcome; the kitchen stove had been lit hours before and the kettle was boiling; the dark red cement floors shone with polish; in the garden Barberton daisies, zinnias, hibiscus and pansies - lacking a small girl to pick her daily fancy - flowered as never before.

How good to be home!

In the weeks that followed, many were the walks in the bundu behind the mine township, for the bundu in Spring glowed with the colours of northern Autumn.  Here trees changed colour not simultaneously but individually.  Old leaves yellowed, faded and fell.  New leaf manifested itself in wine dark buds, opened in burgundy reds, changed to muscat brown and thence, astonishingly, to vivid creme-de-menthe green; and so to unspectacular maturity.  On each tree leaf growth was uniform, so that when one shone from head to foot in gold, others stood in garnet, topaz, emerald or olivine.

In the dry season from long-established custom, grass is fired so that sweet new growth may attract buck. On the black, soot-stained earth in strange contrast open unblemished, freshly-mauve, deep-rooted trumpet flowers.  In every dambo, where marshy ground is treeless, yellow Parrot's Beak and Red Soldier gladioli flourish amidst coarse grasses; mauve ground orchids thrive on the verge as well as wild foxgloves and the lovely Flame Lily.  Scattered through the bundu are immense anthills which were constructed by creatures long extinct; up to twelve feet in height, hut-like in appearance,  these abruptly rounded hillocks are covered with trees, shrubs and grasses amongst which in Spring flowers blue Plumbago and tiny pink Begonia.

The wet season came, and Summer heat.  Jean developed a persistent cough, nausea and the black symptoms of severe hepatitis; and was glad to rest in hospital on a diet of skim milk, fruit and vegetables.  Weeks passed, the disease slowly ran its course until at last she felt well enough to move about.

"Mayn't I get out of bed?" she asked the Doctor, who shook his head.

"Just once a day?" she begged.  "If I could have a shower and return to bed?"

Again the tall thin man shook his head.  "You are seriously ill.  You are having a baby.  You must co-operate with us."

After twenty days the sister-in-charge reluctantly allowed herself to be persuaded by Jean to move her bed to the veranda.  The wet season was over now; the sky showed few clouds and nights were becoming colder.  Enjoying freedom from the close supervision of the public ward Jean found that after the night sister had put out the lights she, by lying head to foot-end of the bed, could see the Southern Cross.  She had been accustomed since childhood to search for Alpha and Beta Centauri, two aligned stars of first and second magnitude which point to the compact, diamond studded, five-starred Crux, and with them resembles a jewelled kite sailing trim and tautly restrained by a side string.

Now Jean had only one companion, a pleasant, rather silent woman who before her marriage had been matron of the native hospital and who was now recovering from an operation.  Strangely enough, Mrs. McAllister and she were to share an unpleasant experience during their brief sojourn together - in fact for Jean it was the fright of her life.

It had been an ordinary morning; as usual in hospital, routine governed all activity.  The two women rested in after-lunch quiet.  The sun shone from a blue sky. A woodpecker with cardinal red head tapped with staccato impatience and surprising force the bole of a slender tree in the large grounds of the hospital.  A double-collared sunbird, tiny but spectacular in green, red, blue and yellow, worked among the opening blooms of a Golden Shower vine: diminutive but aggressive, he tolerated no intruders and chased off other birds with tremendous shoutings and flurries.

At this quiet time of day the streets south and east were almost empty until an African raced into Jean's sight.  And a great number of pursuers.

Sleepily she thought: "Paperchase." But this was no paperchase.  "Hare and hounds!"

Jean's eyes now informed her of the runner's condition – he was running for his life.  He staggered, and almost fell but forced himself to race on.  Behind him ran a great number of shouting, gesticulating Africans. The roar of this mob went before and brought men from gardens and houses to the east, thus cutting off the fugitive as he turned into the avenue leading to the town. He was forced off the street into the park like hospital grounds and towards the veranda where the two sick women lay.

Struggling with shock, and horror, Jean managed to sit up in bed and  turn to Mrs. McAllister.  On the face of the older woman was an expression of understanding and compassion and in spite of the difficulty and slowness with which Jean was controlling mind and body, she was aware Mrs. McAllister grasped the meaning of the crowd and its intention.

"You know what it means!" Breathlessly she added: "Tell me!"

"They have him cornered, I'm afraid!"

"What's it all about? He's coming to us, he sees us here! I'll run and get the ward boy to unlock the padlock on gate."

"No!  There's no time!  And no African would unlock that gate! That boy’s been caught stealing someone's blanket or clothes or money.  He's trying to reach the protection of the European Police - the Boma - before they get him."

The thief tottered towards them until stopped by the fence. Stretching his arms above him, his hands grasping the thick wire, he hung there in anguish. His breath rasped from an open mouth, his chest heaved, sweat streamed from face and neck into his wet shirt. He was unable to speak, but his bloodshot eyes seemed to focus on Jean, who was struggling to think to cope with the situation, to rescue him from his enemies. Her mind seemed gripped by inertia and time passed painfully before a thought defeated the sensation of paralysis and she know she might save him. It concerned the high wire fence, spiked and curved overhead, which protected the Women's Ward.  Too weak to read, she had contented herself in previous days by looking at the garden and had been amused to see that this tremendous unclimbable barrier ended where the foliage of bush and tree began on an adjacent anthill. From the road the fence appeared continuous, but Jean had noted that it did not cross the anthill!  She now wished the man to clamber up and over it, skirt the hospital in a westerly direction and take a short cut to the Boma through the steel at the rear.

The Africans now lined the south and east roads; some moved forward in a planned way as she called urgently:

"Hamba pesulu lapa! Hamba pesulu lapa!" (Go up there!)

Although only a couple of yards from her the man seemed unable to hear. She called the same words slowly, louder, twice more before, following the direction of her pointing finger, he slowly grasped the instruction and its meaning. Turning as one in a dream he took the few steps necessary to arrive at its base, climbed up with freer action and with increased speed jumped down the other side and out of sight.

Although some of his pursuers immediately set off after him, the majority lost interest once he was out of sight; some returned to their work; others gathered in groups to discuss events, for the African, fun-loving and usually gentle, reacts excitedly to a dramatic situation.

The two women anxiously watched the crowd. "I think he will be all right" Mrs. McAllister said reassuringly.  "He has a good start, he's out of sight and I think he has enough strength to get to the Boma -it’s not far- and give himself up. He might meet a mine truck or a car that will give him a lift and make it easy for him."

Jean became aware that her muscles were stiff and unyielding; lying down with closed eyes she did not move or speak for a couple of hours. It was not until following day that she asked:

"Mrs. McAllister, how did you know immediately what was going on when that native ran to us for help?"

"I've seen it before, that's why I understood.  Or at least I've seen the result of a similar happening."

"Won't you tell me?  It worries me that I don't understand.  I’d rather know."

"Well, to begin with: they - the mob - did not plan to kill him.  They planned to break every bone in his body and leave him to die."

 She went on to speak of a day the previous Summer, and to describe her home, emphasising the position of a kitchen window which overlooked a path between the African township and the mine homes.

"I saw this heap of rags - rubbish - I didn't know what, on the path.  It hadn’t been there the day before.  I didn't think much about it until I noticed an African leave the path to walk around it; he stood for a while looking down. Then he walked off. His curiosity made me curious. I stayed at the window for a minute or two; it seemed to me that the thing heaved slightly, but I was too far off to see properly.  I told myself I’d imagined movement. I did some cooking – I like to do my own – but I kept retuning to the window. Another native came along; he looked down at whatever-it-was for a couple of minutes, then he stepped aside until he passed it."

Said Jean: "It's the story of the Good Samaritan!"

 "Well, the first part is anyway, with men passing by and going on their way.  I began to wonder if it might be an injured dog so I went down the path to see.  It was a native whose bones had been broken, lying on the spot where he had been caught and battered. It transpired that he had stolen another boy's blanket."

"Was he conscious?"

"Goodness. no!" She looked at Jean; her nursing experience warned her to say no more.  She finished quickly:

"The doctor was his Good Samaritan.  I ran to the nearest phone, and the ambulance and doctor were very quick - they were on the spot in no time."

Some time passed before Jean expostulated:

"But they pilfer from us all the time... teaspoons, shirts, sheets, money - they don't regard this seriously and neither do we."

"Ah! that's different.  Stealing from the European, who has so much - that's different!"

A bare-footed, white-uniformed 'Wemba brought a fruit drink for Jean and a cup of tea to Mrs. McAllister.  As she sipped it she tried to reconcile the gentleness of the boys she knew with the brutality now revealed to her.

"There's a legend - have you heard it?" she asked, "about the chameleon."

Mary McAllister shook her head.

Jean continued: "It was the time when the Great Lord of All planned to distribute the good things of Earth to Man.  In order to do this, he arranged a place and a time, and he sent messages by animals to men everywhere in the world.  The hare, the crow, the rat - all the creatures delivered the command of the Lord with expedition except the animal chosen to tell the tribes of Africa: the chameleon, which dawdled and procrastinated until he was late in delivering the messages; and when the African tribes arrived at the meeting place all the good things had been given away: there were no wonderful gifts left for them.

"The Lord punished the chameleon by making it slow-moving and deliberate, so that even making one step takes it a considerable time.

"But the African must not revenge himself on the chameleon and if he injures it, this is a great misfortune for him."

"My gardeners won't touch a chameleon" confirmed Mary.  "In fact one day Smart's face went grey.  He was working on the garden beside the house and he dropped his spade and leaned against the wall.  I thought he was going to faint.  He'd turned up a chameleon that was in the soil and he thought he'd injured it.  Actually the little creature was quite all right.  But it took Smart a while to recover from the shock."

**        **        **        **

Weeks passed.  Jean became more conscious of the baby she was carrying.

"My baby is restless" she complained to the doctor. "Please let me get out of bed!  Just for five minutes a day?"

"Hepatitis is a serious illness, especially when pregnancy is involved.  You must wait until we give you permission to get up."

"Doctor!" She spoke anxiously, and he gave her his full attention.  "What sort of baby will I have after so much illness?" His direct gaze met hers.  With compassion he replied:

"As a doctor, I often marvel at the wonders which Nature continually performs."

This reply comforted her, dissipating, the foreboding which had oppressed her; his words stayed and supported her through the weeks ahead as she awaited the time for the child to be born.  The symptoms of hepatitis, though decreasing, persisted for weeks after her return home.  And when she needed Michael so much he developed hepatitis too, in a very severe form, and in his turn became an inmate of the hospital.

**        **        **        **

By the last week in May, that sweet month of tranquil, cool African air and warm sun, Michael was home but confined to bed.

"I've sent him home because I think you need him" explained the doctor.  "You know his diet.  Keep him quiet and rested.  No excitement."

On the 28th May, the last Wednesday of that month, a "boy" in khaki drill shorts and black fez cap arrived from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, Northern Rhodesia.  "No charge for delivery" was printed on the envelope. In pencil was written Michael’s name and address.  Jean received it from the African.  Thinking it might be ill news which should be carefully made known to her sick husband, she opened it, and was surprised to see her brother's name under the message, which read:

"Deeply grieved advise mothers death this morning writing"

Jean, only daughter of a gay, loving mother, could not assimilate the message, could not believe it referred to her mother,  could not comprehend such a tragic loss.  Her bewildered mind struggled to overcome the problem and present an acceptable harmless and reasonable conclusion... it must be a practical joke? the address was wrong? there had been an error in transmission? somebody else had lost a mother?

Better to sit down; to think calmly; to check the address (her husband’s name and their correct address); and the sender (her brother); the place of despatch (Brisbane, thousands of miles away in Queensland - her Mother's home); the time the message was handed in (yesterday morning).

There was no escape.  The message was destined for her and addressed to Michael in order to ease the shock to herself and her unborn child.  She sat on the garden bench stunned by grief, the weakness of convalescence, and a desolate sense of irretrievable loss.  Tearless, she sat alone while her small daughter slept and her husband rested.  She was not aware of Paul and John tending the garden in their quiet way and neither of the houseboys approached her with questions - perhaps because of the sensitive perception often shown by the African.

When she was able, Jean resumed the quiet routine of directing the household and caring for Michael and Janet.

In 1947 no air mail service operated between Australia and Africa. Letters travelled south and then west by sea mail, and by train a thousand miles north to the central plateau of Africa.  This journey took six weeks. Six weeks after her death a loving letter arrived from the dead woman to her daughter; and just as Jean had not mentioned her serious illness in her weekly letters home, so the dying woman did not mention the pain of her fatal disease.

It was now the coldest and most colourless time of the Rhodesian year.  On the trees hung the faded leaves which would fall in Spring.  Flowers bloomed, but not with the exuberance to come.  Although the sun shone gloriously from a cloudless, blue sky at midday, mornings and evenings were crisply cold and dry.

On the seventh night of July an unusually severe frost occurred, destroying young papaw trees and burning to sere and withered brown the high-waving, wind-torn, blue-green banana leaves.  Jean helped Janet to bed, told her a story; and kissed her convalescent husband good-night.  James had built a log fire in the sitting-room, and Jean sat in reverie before it.  Within herself she felt the greatest tranquillity and strength she had felt before the arrival of her first child.     

"Just like old Henrietta!" she mused. "Always nervous, except when her kittens are about to be born. This calmness must be the first of the sequence of the natural processes of parturition.  In which case, my baby should be born soon!"

"Poor baby!" she thought. "Instead of a joyful, healthy pregnancy, I've been able to provide only a mind and body beset by sorrow, shock, anxiety and illness ... hepatitis, of all things!  This night should be the last in which he shares my troubles, my warmth and my life.  I hope he is perfect.  But I know and love him anyway because he is my own child."

The lights of the houses vanished one by one, as mine workers go to bed early, and rise early. In the starlit night a far-off hyena howled.  Animals no longer inhabited the vicinity of the township, but within a couple of miles could be found buck and guineafowl, and occasionally lion, leopard and elephant.  Jean thought of a clearing in nearby bush, where great moths hovered over the grasses, and above them the birds of the night.  Jean remembered her first astounded sighting of Khasawu, the pennant-winged nightjar, in this glade - of a bird, broad-shouldered and nearly a foot long, flying at eye level, with two graceful, ribbon- like undulating feathers twice as long as itself floating after it.

Within the quiet room, the untouched fire glowed as the logs turned to charcoal. Above their solid material lay a lighter surface criss-crossed and channelled into segments. As Jean watched, one of these slipped and slid away; the tiny section above, no longer supported, dropped into the empty place and followed the first - this motion repeated again and again, until to Jean it seemed that a small lizard had wriggled from the top log in order to jump into the hottest part of the fire.

"A salamander!" The luck-bringing fire-lizard!  I'm just in the mood to see a mythological lizard!  But could it be a real lizard, in a fire which was started hours ago?"

It seemed impossible, but she carefully examined the fire, stirring its heart and noticing how the segments of the burnt surface moved at a breath.

The mystery solved, smiling, delighting in the thought that she had seen a legendary beast last noticed by some whiskery old ancient, she sat a little longer.

"Why shouldn't I have the fun of regarding it as a good omen?" she argued.  And she thought:

"In 1968 he will be twenty-one.  Could be a University student.  My wish is that he finds work he enjoys, and does some good in the world."

Her lively baby had been tranquil for some hours, perhaps asleep, she thought as she fell drowsily into bed; her rest lasted four hours and she awoke and dressed, waiting for the ambulance to take her to hospital. Michael was not yet well enough to accompany her.

It was not long wait, and the drive lasted only ten minutes. Jean realised it would not be long before her baby was born. The driver cheerfully carried her suitcase into the hospital and said:

"Good-night, Mrs. Alexander.  Hope it's a boy!"

"Boy or girl, either will do" she laughed.

But the Night Sister said firmly:

"You can't go into the Labour room yet.  I'll give you a bed in the Ward."

"Sister this baby is in a hurry!"

"Well, Mrs. Thompson is in the Labour room having her baby. You will just have to wait here until the room is available."

She seized the bell and, looping it out of reach, said firmly:

"You won't need the bell. I’ll come back as soon as I have a minute."

Left alone in the two-bed ward Jean felt an increase of frequency and intensity in the muscular contractions that overcame her ability to relax and remain still.

"It's like Canute telling the tide to return. These spasms seem caused by a fundamental force, greater than any strength I could voluntarily produce, and greater than I can control."

She thought of the child being wrenched from its bed by this mighty upheaval, of the frail body being constricted and propelled too rapidly on its hazardous passage, of danger in a solitary confinement.

"I will do my best, baby dear!  It seems we have this one last ordeal to endure together."

Jean had no idea how long she had been alone; she thought from the lightening of the eastern windows that dawn was breaking. The violent muscular contractions she knew were forcing the child forward too fast; in the lessening pause between them she relaxed.  In the last one she was to be granted, Sister Anthony entered, saying authoritatively:

"Now I shall fix you up comfortably, so that you’ll be all ready when you go into the Labour Ward."

"You are too late, Sister" replied Jean, not without a certain grim satisfaction.  "The baby is being born now."

As she spoke, the spasms recommenced;  she had time to note that Sister Anthony turned white and dropped her gear with a clatter.  Jean caught the word "sterilizer" as the woman turned and raced from the room. Before her return the greatest muscular contraction Jean had ever experienced, or ever would experience, seized her being; her whole body became involved in the grip of this irresistible force. Even her head lifted up and forwards and in a dim astonished way she felt her jaws lock and her lips retract in a tortured grimace.  Although Jean was past vision she was aware that Sister Anthony had returned, and realized that a cold instrument, ineffectively held and shaking violently, touched her in some feeble expression of co-operation. During this mighty and prolonged spasm Jean felt the infant relentlessly squeezed forward and, within the space of a minute, expelled with great force.  Flung into life, at last this being was now released to a separate entity.

Jean was aware of the magic words "It's a boy!" Some time passed before she was aware of anything going on around her, and then it was a doctor grumbling about lack of sterility.  Another man replied reassuringly:

"These uniforms are pretty sterile." She recognised this voice as that of the Chief Medical Officer.

"We have to put in some stitches" the latter said as he bent over her.  "We're giving you an anaesthetic."

"How is my baby?"

"A boy.  He's fine.  Weighs eight pounds, five ounces."

So my little fire lizard, my salamander was a good omen, she thought as she drifted into unconsciousness, for the doctor's tone was positive and cheerful.

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2006:
Dr Jonathan Nevill, 31 Coolabah Road, Sandy Bay, Tasmania 7005 Australia.

 

 

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