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The forest was full of powerful magic. More than thirty years had passed but I could still remember it clearly. Pongola, the place we spent our summer vacations, all together, before Dad died and Jake went delinquent on us. The name, Zulu in origin, means “gully”, after the deep, dark Pongola River which had impossibly steep riverbanks. Difficult to get out, if you fell in.
I was eight years old the first time we went. In my school’s Geography textbook, the map showed me it was in the Kingdom of Zululand, which even had its own king, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by my open, fertile mind.
Pongola was held like a jewel in the hand of a triangular river basin, framed on one side by the Indian ocean, on the other by the blue-purple Lebombo Mountains, rising majestic, and finally, completing the trinity, Lake Jozini, with water so warm it was eternally covered by clouds of steam and was a haven to the crocodiles and hippos who swam its depths. My brother, then a keen fisherman, told me too of tiger fish that would take the finger off you if you dared trail your hand in the temptingly warm water. Pongola was darkly enchanting and I believed myself to be the luckiest girl alive to spend four weeks out of every year there. We always stayed in the cottages up on the hill, a small, well-secured holiday complex called Renshaw Heights, named after some colonial magnate. The caretaker, Mr Potts, warned us nonetheless about locking our doors at night.
“The locals are harmless,” he used to say, “until they get a drink in them.”
Mum used to say the same thing about Mr Potts. Once, about fifteen years ago, we’d been deciding on a family holiday, the first in ages since my brother and I had left home. Mum was alone, having been widowed when I was just thirteen, I was single, and Jake was recently sober, having spent the better part of the previous ten years in and out of rehab for addiction to various substances. The three of us badly needed a break from our lives.
“Let’s go back to Pongola,” I suggested.
“Pongola,” repeated my mother. “We used to stay in those quaint little cottages on the hill. Do you remember?”
“The fishing was great!” said Jake. “I’d love to see it again. I wonder if it’s changed much.”
“Do you remember the caretaker, Mr. Potts?” I asked them.
“Cranky old windbag,” replied my brother.
“Rubbish!” I said. “He was the kindest old man. He always cut up bananas for me and helped me feed the monkeys.”
“I’m not sure if he was cranky or not, but I never liked the way he looked at you, dear,” commented my mother. “You were, what, twelve, the last time we were there?”
I stared at her, wordless, wondering if she was confusing Mr. Potts with someone else. Jake broke the silence.
“He used to steal my bait! I’m convinced of it. I used to leave it in the shed, ready for the next morning and I’d always find the lid open and half of it gone.”
“I think he had a young girl he lived with,” mused my mother. She raised an eyebrow. “A young, coloured girl…?” She didn’t get the reaction she was seeking from us and so continued. “Anyway I often saw him outside the High Street pub with other women. A different woman each time. And they were never sober.”
“Mr. Potts was interested in two things,” I insisted. “He collected sea shells and he loved to read history books.”
I’d been inside Mr. Potts’ cottage many times. It was a simple home and the carpet was threadbare at the doorway, but it was always clean and tidy. He did live with a young woman. She had skin like velvet that always smelt like an Easter egg, that delicious vanilla chocolate smell. She told me it was her moisturiser, the one she bought at the general store. Sometimes she let me use some on my hands and arms and I’d spend the day sniffing myself. What was her name? Once she told me she couldn’t read or write when she’d met Mr. Potts, and that he’d taught her.
“He definitely drank too much. Remember how red his face was? I told your father I didn’t want to come back, that last time. Not with you becoming a young woman,” said my mother.
“He had the cheek to shout at me once – said I’d left a mess in the shed where I’d cleaned my catch. I never even cleaned my fish in his stupid shed,” complained my brother.
“I think her name was Elsa,” I said.
“Who?” they said in unison.
“The woman he lived with. She used to cook a fish curry for him. It wasn’t too hot – he didn’t like it too hot because it gave him heartburn and then he had to take his tummy medicine – but it was more fragrant and spicy,” I said. “Mm, I can smell it now. Once Elsa even let me taste it.”
“You ate with them?” asked my mother, her face twisting in disapproval. “How often?”
“He probably stole my catch to make his curry!” shouted Jake.
By then my mother’s mouth had set into a thin, straight line that turned determinedly down towards her chin.
“I think I’d prefer to go to the mountains,” she said. “Somewhere new, somewhere none of us has ever been.”
And that was the end of it. We never went on holiday again together. No one had raised the subject after that conversation, preferring to smile politely and pretend we were all quite fine. And that had been the last time I’d ever thought about Pongola – until now, staring at the newspaper laid open in front of me. It was Friday and I was at my usual spot for breakfast. A young girl had gone missing in the area. Again, I remembered. It had happened before, when I was twelve, the last time we’d ever been there.
I took a bite of my croissant and wiped the sheen of butter off my hands before reading the whole story. I’d become a creature of habit over the years, eating and drinking the same things, in the same place, Monday through Friday. The truth was that routine made me feel safe, it was my home, my companion. My life, evenly measured out, comprised a steady and disciplined stream of lectures, research, reading, eating, sleeping, and occasional social events.
I couldn’t tell you when that had happened. Not definitively, anyway. There had been no explosive moment, just a softly insistent process, a purposeful weaving and selecting, until my life was a cocoon of my making. And I liked it that way.
I liked too the fact that I was fashionably unmarried and securely established – is that the right word? – in my job at the University of Johannesburg as a professor of Anthropology. I hadn’t spoken to my brother Jake in a long time. After he had his umpteenth relapse (pills, grass, who knows?) I’d really lost all interest in staying in touch and realised that any fraternal love that might have once existed between us had broken down, disappearing forever. And with Mum dead, there didn’t seem any point to our playing “happy families” anymore.
I was uncharacteristically pensive that morning – the fault of the headline looking up at me, demanding my attention. I wondered briefly where me-the-child, who lived free, like a castaway for a whole month of the year, had gone. The one who wore nothing but a bathing suit and flip-flops, who went to bed with sand in her wavy, blonde hair, and sea salt, dried to a fine, white powder, on her face.
Warming my perpetually cold hands on the coffee mug, I continued reading: “Police initially suspected the girl’s uncle but his arrest proved inconclusive and he was released after only a few hours.”
The barman was removing cups and saucers from the dishwasher, as white clouds of steam billowed out of it. Normally the clashing and clinking would have disturbed me and made me purse my lips in disapproval. Instead I stared at the words, lost in thought about what my life had been, the magic of my childhood holidays, my parents – once so tangible, so alive – now both gone.
A name in the small print caught my eye: “At the time of publication, another suspect had been taken into custody. No further details have been released, except that he is an elderly white man and the caretaker of the Renshaw Heights holiday apartments, close to where the teenage girl lived.”
I read the word again, my face devoid of emotion.
The caretaker, Mr Potts?
Outside the campus clock tower chimed nine times. I quickly folded the newspaper and shoved it into my briefcase. No time for the past when the present was calling.
Later that evening, ensconced on my sofa with a glass of red wine, I read the article again. I wasn’t surprised really – Pongola was a remote, untamed place. Or at least it had been. People were bound to go missing. Maybe she’d fallen into the river. Or a crocodile had got her while she was washing her clothes. They still lived like that down there, untouched by time.
I washed down some crackers and cheese with a large gulp, tossed the paper onto the coffee table and turned on the TV to watch the headlines. Another glass of wine and my eyes began to close. I knew I should have a shower before it got any later, but the wave of sleep washing over me was so warm and inviting that I closed my eyes (just five minutes, I promised myself) and gave in, sinking back onto the cushions.
I was a girl again, tagging along while Jake drove to the sea to go fishing at dawn. You had to drive for at least two kilometres on a dirt road, before reaching the sandy beach, through high walls of dense undergrowth that the sun never penetrated and that always smelt of dark and wet.
The road was baked hard from the sun and the car bumped and jolted as we drove. All four windows were rolled right down to get some relief from the coastal humidity, allowing that smell to permeate everything. Dark green and brown vegetation flashed by in vertical lines as we sped past. I folded my arms on the open window and leaned my head out, my eyes drawn always to the thick blackness of the tropical forest that seemed never to end.
In my twelve-year-old mind, the blackness was something both terrifying and fascinating. So many times I wanted to stop the car, to tell my brother to wait, while I went to the edge of the undergrowth and tested the spongy earth with my foot. I wanted to kick off my shoes and dig my toes into the damp dirt, leaving my toenails rimmed in black. Huge earthworms would wriggle slowly and blindly as I dug them up, red-brown and fattened by their rich feast of decomposing matter: palm fronds, pieces of bark and small birds that flew in to the forest and never flew out. All would fall noiselessly onto the lush and waiting soil.
I opened my eyes, inhaling sharply. It was past midnight. I wiped my mouth and sat, face in hands, trying to grab on to the pieces and pictures still floating, weightless, inside my head.
Memories or imagination?
Of course I remembered going fishing with Jake – a hundred times. But something else was hovering, just under the surface. A piece of the past, a piece of me, tantalisingly close. As I turned my attention onto it, shining mental headlights, it took fright and vanished. Like a fish that swims towards your baited hook and then darts away at the last minute, realising the trap you’ve set for it and disappearing, free, into black waters. I shuffled to bed, tired beyond explanation, and pulled the covers right up to my ears.
The blackness of the forest had a song and it called me. I wanted to pull back the ferns and the spider webs and let them engulf me as I moved deeper into the undergrowth, disappearing forever. Only the whites of my eyes and my teeth would show, I imagined. I would take off my clothes and let the darkness dress me. I’d learn how to live in silence and shadows, and I would drink the inky water that ran through the tiny streams, like midnight veins all over the forest floor.
But I never did. When that local girl had disappeared, never to be found, I’d spent hours imagining that the deep, dark vegetation had lured her in and taken her. Now she was a Persephone of the Forest, wandering silently inside the blackness, her hands gently touching the tree trunks as she dreamed of the sunlight and the sky. She had become a damp and mildewed sprite, moss growing up her shins and forearms, and the skin between her bare feet and fingers webbing together.
When I opened my eyes, it was morning. I rolled onto my side and curled my knees up towards my chest. My head felt heavy and cloudy, like the water of a heaving sea that throws about its trinkets of sand and broken shells. Eventually I sat up, yawning, and stared at the bedcovers in front of me. The place I’d just woken from was still with me, in the room, a physical presence. Again, something, someone, hovered, just under the surface. I knew its importance but the more I tried to grab it, the more elusive it became, a slippery fish, impossible to catch.
Later I dressed, made a pot of coffee and toast. I had over fifty essay papers to grade. I curled up in the armchair, hooking my legs over the wide arms and took out a pile of papers from my briefcase. Yesterday’s newspaper, crumpled up, still lay on the coffee table. I dumped the essays onto the table and read the article again.
An ibis called from the rooftops outside, its distinctive honking breaking my concentration. As my mind wandered, a thought dripped into my very core. It was as clear as a drop of water, and as heavy as stone.
The very last holiday in Pongola. The day I’d tasted Elsa’s fish curry. Mr Potts standing in his clean and tidy living room. He wanted to show me his sea shells. Elsa, in the kitchen, boiling rice. Mr Potts’ hands on my elbows. Rubbing my arms, then my back.
“You’re a good girl,” he kept saying.
His breath, heavy with beer, sour and stale. He stood in front of me and I was pinned between his bulging stomach and the bookshelves behind me. I couldn’t see any seashells. His hands, all the while, moving up and down my back, then suddenly he slid them around, into the space between my chest and my armpits, as if he wanted to pick me up.
His hands were warm and I was cold. I was frozen, unable to move. I thought about fishing. I hated to watch while my brother baited the hooks. The worms, impaled, stopped wriggling and hung there, suspended, able only to wait for their inevitable fate, a cold, dark mouth that would devour them.
Mr Potts massaged my chest with his thumbs, his coarse skin catching on the soft cotton of my t-shirt. His fingers made increasingly bigger circles until he grazed the top part of my child’s breasts – “little bee-stings” my brother called them. And still I could not move. I stared at his nose. Mum was right. It was red and blotchy. Mr Potts’ breathing had become strange, short and ragged. His eyes bulged like boiled eggs. And his hands, they never stopped kneading my tender chest, tugging at me. I closed my eyes and thought of the forest and how the darkness would hide me. Of how I had only to ask, and it would welcome me and keep me forever.
Elsa shrieking – and I was finally unstuck, free from the hook. I ran from the room, from his small caretaker’s house, on the hill, in Pongola, and I never came back.
The sun had gone in behind a cloud and the room was cast in cold shadow. I slumped sideways in the chair, breathing through my mouth – shallow, shaky breaths.
Memories or imagination?
A bilious anger rose in me, an anger at this intruder who dared disrupt my quietly happy life. A life I’d constructed piece by piece. A life I could be proud of. And then, as suddenly as this long-suffocated memory had come to the surface, so too came the clarity of what to do.
On Monday morning I sat at my usual breakfast table. I opened the newspaper. I bit my croissant. I lifted the cup to my lips and drank. No one would have noticed that my hand trembled slightly. I thought of all the holidays we’d spent together as a family, and of Pongola’s beautiful sandy beach.
When I went fishing with Jake, I always felt a combined sense of relief and disappointment that the drive through the forest was over. Sitting on the beach at dawn, the last of the night’s rainclouds used to glide swiftly overhead, as if some invisible hand wanted to clean the heavens of their charcoal and putty-coloured stains, and reveal the deepest blue that peeped through in between. A blue so deep and cool, you wished the world were upside down and you could dive into that endless sky. The blueness would wash me clean of the forest smell that still clung inside my nose, dark and wet.
While Jake fished, I used to sit in the soft sand, the colour of caramel, and inhale deeply, breathing in the salt spray of the churning waves. As the sun rose, the clouds became solid, lit by rays of light that glittered across the sky in visible beams from the orange ball burning on the horizon. And as I watched the light and felt the early morning air turn warmer, I liked to imagine a voice, singing and tinkling. It came from behind me, from deep inside the forest.
Now I recognised that voice. It was my own. That day, running away from Mr Potts, I finally had the courage to enter the forest, to surrender my own darkness to a darkness that even the sun couldn’t penetrate. I’d leaned on the trees and opened my mouth to cry, to call out, to vomit, but at first, no sound had come. That day the forest had opened itself to me, swallowing that part of me that I didn’t want found – not then, not now, not ever.
The morning paper was spread out in front of me. There was no article on Pongola’s missing girl. I knew she wouldn’t be found because I knew where she was, where a part of me was, where a part of us all was.