"Skattebol, another slice of pie?" Johanna asked.
Eva started. "No, I'm fine right now."
"A little more sherry?"
In the unflattering light of the dining alcove, her aunt's face looked wrung out and deeply lined. She'd never married, and Eva had a vision of a teenage Johanna, stocky-legged and frowning, in a school playground, one arm wrapped tight around her stuttering little brother, a fist raised at his tormentors.
Eva relented; after all, the fritters were delicious. "Tannie, die pampoen is baie lekker."
Johanna's lips quivered. She removed the hankie that she kept tucked between her breasts and dabbed her eyes and thanked God that her niece was home. She prayed for Martin's recovery and stared at the ceiling as if to check that her words had taken flight.
Eva promptly drained her sherry glass.
Johanna did the same, eyes flitting to the ceiling once more as she cried, "And please forgive me for not making him leave the farm!"
"I'm sure you did everything you could," Eva soothed.
"No, I went to the farm a few weeks ago. I hadn't seen him in months, and I cooked him a tongue, three chickens, and a melktert. Like an expedition, I'm telling you. All that dust and that twisting road down through the koppies. It was terrible! I got there in the middle of the day and found him sleeping on the sofa with all the curtains closed. I made us some tea, and when he stepped outside I saw that he hadn't shaved in days and -- forgive me for saying this" -- Johanna clutched Eva's hand -- "he smelled, bad, like he wasn't washing himself. I wanted to cry when I looked at his feet, all swollen and red."
Through a thickening fog of Old Brown Sherry and jet lag, Eva stared at the veins on her aunt's hand, winding like rivers on a map, dividing into tributaries. She knew she should have some sort of emotional response; her aunt was telling sad stories about her father's decline -- when Johanna had called her in New York and said, he's dying, her heart had almost stopped -- but all Eva felt was immense fatigue, her head about to fall into the plate that held the last pumpkin fritter. She blinked at it, too good to waste. She picked it up and tried to concentrate on Johanna's words.
"I should have made him come home with me. But by the end of the visit he'd cheered up. You know why? That bloody dog stole the tongue. Ach, I was angry. But my boetie was laughing, and if that's what it took, I would serve tongue to that animal once a week. I thought he was going to be all right. Two weeks later I got a call from the hospital."
Johanna tilted the sherry bottle, less than an inch left. Eva declined and Johanna finished it.
"He gave me something to give to you. I was in the car, and he came out of the house with a box and said, 'When my time comes, give these to Eva.' I told him to stop talking such rubbish, but he insisted."
Eva struggled to keep her eyes open. "He gave you something?" she mumbled.
"Those diaries, the ones your mother kept. I put them in your room. Kind? Is jy wakker? Come, come, you must go to bed." Johanna ushered Eva down the hallway to the spare room. She peeled back the sheets on a sturdy single bed with a dark wooden headboard. Eva kicked off her shoes, pulled off her jeans, and flopped onto the bed.
"Do you want your pajamas?" Johanna asked when she returned with Eva's suitcase.
"Don't own any," she murmured.
"Brush your -- "
Eva shook her head.
Johanna stood beside the bed, chuckling. "Look at you! Miss America with no pajamas in my spare bed. Sleep well, skattie."
Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Fugard. reproduced by permission of the publisher, Scribner.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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