Eva pressed her forehead to the window and watched the ruffle of waves rimming the coastline recede from view as the plane nosed its way toward Johannesburg. The dirt roads were visible, clawed into a land pitted and scarred by drought. She knew the hell of driving them, how dusty and worn she'd feel after jolting along one, nothing to look at for hour upon hour but rocks and thorn trees. Maybe, if she was lucky, a jackal, a snake. Africa lay stretched beneath her like the ravaged hide of some ancient beast, and something fierce shuddered inside her, a love that startled her and set off another round of tears.
The girls sitting behind her were talking to one another. Sixteen hours into the flight and she still couldn't identify the language, definitely not Xhosa, she hadn't heard any of the characteristic clicks, and not Sotho because she would surely have recognized the rhythms if not any of the words. At least they weren't singing.
It was September, the plane only half full. Unlike the other passengers who had shifted around after takeoff to secure banks of seats for themselves, the three girls had stayed together. They wore dark blue pinafores and light blue shirts. They looked too old to be schoolgirls, but then Eva thought of overcrowded classrooms in the townships, where twenty-year-old pupils shared textbooks and wrote their matric exams sitting on cement floors.
They sang for the first time just before the dinner service and their voices, full of sunshine and honey and dust, had disturbed in Eva some sodden longing for what used to be home. She wiped her eyes with a blue South African Airways blanket. She was crying for her father, because of her father. She shook her head in mild disgust at herself. Her mother was dead, worthy of her grief, and yet here she was weeping for that miserable ghost clinging to life in a hospital in Louis Trichardt.
She drank two small bottles of red wine with dinner and swallowed half a sleeping pill. The soft voices behind her were murmuring something as she drifted off. In her sozzled state she imagined it to be a lullaby, the private twittering of doves in a thicket.
Now, with an hour left in what had seemed like a never-ending flight, Eva stared at the cratered red earth giving way to a smooth dun-colored expanse mottled with dark green. Sand rivers that flow for just a few weeks each year if the rains are decent wound across the land like snail trails. Someone kneed her through the seat. The girls were giggling, piling on top of one another to look out of their small window, and she impulsively leaned over her seat back, saying, "Isn't it beautiful?"
They nodded, two of them immediately raising hands to demurely cover their mouths, while the third, a young woman really, looked curiously at Eva. She wanted to ask them what they'd been doing in America. Were they members of a youth group or a choir? Had a church sponsored their trip? The forthright gaze of the young woman deterred Eva from asking as she realized that she, in turn, would be questioned. She already had her lines prepared, she would claim to be an American tourist. She would lie to the girls, as she had for most of her years in New York, changing her story each time; one moment an immigrant from New Zealand, another a student visiting from England.
She slid back into her seat. It had been ten years since she'd left the country, and left her father standing in front of the Dutch Reformed church in Alldays. Now he was dying.
The shadow of the plane slid across the turquoise pools of Johannesburg's northern suburbs, buckled over ocher-colored slag heaps piled beside exhausted gold mines. The wheels thudded onto the runway, and the girls launched into "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika." Other passengers seated in her section joined in, the white South Africans humming because the Xhosa words of their new anthem still eluded them, the blacks giving full voice. A smiling American family seated at the bulkhead stood up to watch, the father filming it all with a video camera. They were going on safari; Eva had overheard them talking to the steward.
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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