22 – The Book of Gideon (sophia)

22:         Sophia

The first bust had disgorged its passengers by the time ours reach the aircraft.

The crowd at the foot of the mobile stairs slowly fed itself up into the plane, as a few yellow jacketed officials lazily flapped their arms at the periphery like some exotic herdsmen tending a flock of goats. Around them the tarmac apron was a bustle of activity. The area was shared between domestic flights, and the short international hauls. With the Joburg- Cape Town route being the busiest in the world, the buzz of activity was not surprising.

My anxiety dissipated when half way up the stairway I recognized a bald head sticking up out of the neckline of his khaki colored clothes. His thick stocky legs protruded from his short pants before disappearing back into long socks pulled up out of a loose slide into worn leather bush shoes. Trevor was about to enter the aircraft. Moving down the aisle I noted an open middle spot next to him, and I settled down for the short flight northwards.

The climb out of Johannesburg was bumpy, but not nearly as rough as the dissent into Bulawayo. The sub-tropical air, spurred on by the blazing sunshine, buffeted our aircraft as it rose, sucking moisture up with it, so high that the jet-stream blew the cloudy crowns sideways like the hair on the head of a windswept girl.

Pausing the flow of our conversation, I looked out the window to peer at the top of one of these awesome anvils as it slid past under the wings.

I thought how the boyhood bonds with people and places never age. Trevor and I could ‘bandy-about’ any subject under the sun.  My subdued excitement stemmed from the anticipation engaging not just with Trevor, but also the unique boulder-hilled beauty to the south east of the city..

“It looks like we can expect a thunderstorm later on this afternoon,” I said to him.

“We could use it”, he replied, “We never have enough rain these days”.

Both being well acquainted with the rougher aspects of African travel, unlike a few of the foreign passengers who were glancing around nervously, we hardly broke the flow of our conversation as the aircraft rocked its way across the sky.

“How did you get the gig up there?” Trevor was spooning mouthfuls of the chicken and sadza from the little tinfoil container he had lifted from his lunch tray, holding it up near his mouth for convenience and efficiency.

Sadza, being the staple maze meal dough-like food favored by most of the poor and rural population was now replacing the usual rice or mashed-potato starch of the menu on the inter African flights. It was a sign that a lot of people had been lifted into middle class by the end of apartheid. They had brought their eating habits with them.

Trevor nodded his head towards the three smart, but casually dressed men sitting in the seats across the aisle. “I wonder what these Chinese on this flight think of the sadza? I bet they would prefer rice.” Then after another moutful, ““That is another sign of the new Africa.”

 I nodded back to him, “I hear that in Angola there are now more Chinese than there were Portuguese colonialists at the time of independence.”

Trevor mopped the chicken gravy at the bottom of its tin-foil bowl with the last of his bread-roll. “I heard that it was a Chinese government policy to encourage five million of them to emigrate into Africa. They want a phalanx of CHinese ex-pats to indirectly form a sympathetic element in the fabric of the continent.

 “They are the latest neo-colonialists streaming this way to get their heads bashed around by an African education.” I replied pensively.

Trevor agreed.

“One wonders how their children will think of themselves, as Chinese? Will they have as little allegiance to China as you and I have to Europe. Will they learn that deep down, despite us being completely African, our presence is a spoiler to the popular notion that Africa belongs only to black Africans.”

I glanced out the window as the nose of the aircraft dipped to begin its descent and Trevor handed his tray to the airhostess.

“Yep” I commented, “some Chinese have started mining close to the border of the National Park where I operate. Little half Chinese babies are starting to appear in the surrounding villages.”

Trevor looked at me and shrugged. “Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls.”

I also passed my tray to the airhostess as the captain announced the preparations for landing.

“Well,” I said “For better or worse, you and I are stuck in our Africa. We have no other home.”

“By the way,” I said to him, “talking about boys and girls. Did I tell you that I am meeting another old friend while I am here?”

“No.” he said. “Who is it?”

“Sophia.” I replied slowly.

“No kidding!” Trevor looked at me in surprise, “What hat did you pull her out of?”

“I didn’t. She contacted me. Out of the blue after three decades. Apparently she got divorced, and her father died recently. He left her some money, so she can afford to return. I have no idea why. Maybe like some of us, she is trying to recapture, or rekindle the promises of the past.’

“Really.” Trevor exclaimed, “I’m surprised I haven’t bumped into her yet.

I know most of the Jewish community. After all from the five thousand here when we were at school it is down to about 50 these days.”

I said, “She’s probably still settling in, and she doesn’t use her maiden name. Which is probably why you haven’t recognized her”

“But who knows, I will soon know more.”

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In the Hillside suburb of the city of Bulawaayo the tall endemic trees, the Mafuti and the Masasa mix in with exotics to shade and shield the eye from the squat squareness of the old houses. The overall effect is one of subdued stagnation. It is where Rip Van Winkle has fallen asleep. Behind their fences and high walls the houses are set back like geriatrics on the verandah of a hospice. Having lost their aura of graciousness they have grudgingly succumbed to the consequences of age and neglect. Many of the once well-tended lawns have withered back to bare soil, as have the flower beds. The dust from that bareness coats the outside walls in layers of grime, and the sun has long since baked the paint on their corrugated tin roofs into flaky chips.

But leaving Van Winkle in the sedate suburban scruffiness, the cities fingers gradually twitch into life and cast off the blankets of slumber the closer one gets to its heart.

This awakening is not from a rejuvenation. The city has not shaken off much of its old colonial past other than a renaming of the streets in honor of the latest revolutionary heroes. Its inherited skeleton and pot-holed flesh is still in evidence in its streets wide enough for an about face of the ox-wagons of its original settlers. Augmenting the sense of a return to the past, are the predominance of post WWII buildings, with their living quarters above and shop fronts below. The hollow eyed glass windows of their empty store fronts stare out at the cracked and uneven pavements bordering the wide width of the streets.

But this untended senility is masked by the vibrancy of the hordes walking along its pavements, weaving in and out to avoid the wares of hawkers spread on blankets on the uneven sidewalks. With their backs leaning against the store fronts, the hawkers themselves sit on their haunches, while they harangue and attempt to entice anyone unwary enough to make eye contact.

Parking my rental car well away from the center of town I joined this slop of people sometimes spilling off the pavements to haphazardly cross the roads. I was more cautious and did not emulate their artful disdain, when like bullfighters they dodged in between the clutter of mini-buses, motor-bikes and other vehicles, with drivers honking and cussing each other as they squeeze their way from here to where-ever. I wondered where they all got their fuel in this land of dearth. To add emphasis to the sense of improvisation a wheel barrow passed me by as it moved goods around. I was briefly surrounded by a throng of school boys, wearing long grey pants, white shirts and ties with blazers bearing the crest of Milton School, an echo of a faded empire.

The economic collapse of this once productive land has chased away many of its business people. With it the racial diversity the city once possessed. The uniform African’ness of the throngs on the street was so evident. Gone are the Caucasians, the Greeks, the Lebanese, the Jews and even most of the Indians. But, I was glad to see that they hadn’t cut down the trees, which still lined the boulevards and shaded the parks with even greater sumptuousness than they did decades ago, when like that throng, wearing a white cotton shirt tucked into long grey pants, with tie, and embellished with a boater hat and blazer, as a Falcon College schoolboy, I had sheltered in their soothing shade.

As I left behind the slumbering dreams of my past there was a quickening of my breath.

Before me was the ghost I had spent decades mindlessly engaging and talking to as it turned its cold shoulder while I pleaded for another chance, until with its blue eyes and strawberry blonde braids it faded like the rest of the forgotten long ago land.

After all this time I was surprised to find how thin was the skin that covered those old wounds of the heart, that I was shockingly still moved by her memory. Now I had a chance to mingle my past imagination with today’s reality..

I had waited three decades to find out.

I wondered if we passed each other would I recognize her? Would her skin be wrinkled like the pavements of the city.

Would her beautiful body still be as bounteous as the trees that shaded these potholed streets, and her skeleton still

mirror her foundations.

I was anxious. Why was I about to lift this rock covering the past. Would there be a scorpion lodged under it instead of the butterfly I remembered. Would she dangle possibilities from the window of her castle, then, as before, clip those golden braids as I climbed.

At exactly 9am I mounted the stairs to her office and knocked on the door.

She stood across the room. From out of its dim gloom I saw her smile at me for the first time in thirty years.

She led me into a side office, hers maybe?, She talked to me as if it was a job interview, letting me talk and tell a bit of my life… kids, years, business. It was her turf, I was the intruder. She had the psychological edge. She offered me tea. I said no.

I wanted to say, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Her face was more drawn than I remembered and the corners of her mouth lined with worry.

But the outline of her contours were as ample as they had always been, maybe even more sumptuous where they curved over her chest, from motherhood maybe?

But I was caught off guard. I had not expected to see this pinnacle of moral aloofness in mourning.

Yup “mourning” is the only word I could think of which epitomized my impression. An aura of sadness, of loss and despair.

She asked a pretty young dark haired girl in the office to do something.

That was when I detected the bleakness of her spirit. It was new to me. She was accusing and annoyed, and made it even worse with a hollow laugh. My heart went out to the girl. I wanted to tell her, “You are doing just fine sister.”

Watching her move, everything about her broadcasted sadness and despair. Her office was stark, bleak and without cheer. Her clothing was grey and black with long sleeves. It was done all the way up her neck, so that it acted as a barrier between her and the world. It covered and hid her body. It dissipated any joy and happiness that may have snuck out from behind the wane smiles and slight twinkles in her eyes when I did manage to get her to briefly forget about the weight of the world on her shoulders.

I tried to remember her gorgeous big soft and surprisingly weightless breasts… the beautiful bell shape of her hips, how they spawn the curves of her thighs. But the bleakness of her cladding smothered my memories.

I asked if she had pierced ears. I wanted to give her a pair of earrings I had carved from masasa pods. She explained that she has no jewelry except a ring from her father, engraved HK? – Henry, if I remember correctly. He died last year. I asked of her sister. Leah is dead, as is her mother.

She sees herself as a victim of her own character. She chooses the same kind of men in her life she says. Men who let her down. Men like me… and now her ex-husband. Were there others I ask. Yes she said. Her Martin has survived the purges of the “Black Empowerment” at the University down south. He is off doing his fun academic thing, surrounded by adoring student groupies. He was dallying with a few, while she had been trying to make their architectural business run and raise her daughters.

With me she is right every time. I said I didn’t want to upset the equilibrium of her life in anyway…. And I didn’t. What I did not know is that the equilibrium was screwed up anyway. If anything I felt I could nudge it back into kilter.

Where is the bright happy impulsive girl I once loved. Could I ever entice out any of its vestiges?

She is still the only one I could have stayed with for life. Maybe! I say maybe because I don’t know who this woman in mourning is today. Like the old Africa of my dreams, I have changed and she has changed and we are not who we were and I may still be able to love her, but that is not enough.

She said she remembers our time as if it was someone else’s. She wonders that she was the age of her daughters now when all that happened.

Not me! I remember everything. So much locked into slumbering dreams.

As I told her, relationships were and are the biggest failure of my life. The lack of commitment, supposing I had time, it destroyed  the biggest chances I ever had. Maybe.

I couldn’t stand it. it was claustrophobic there.

“Sophia,” I said, “Take the afternoon off and come with me to the Matopos. Remember how we hiked there? The cave I want to visit is one we never managed to make it to. It was when you twisted an ankle.”

She looked at me suspiciously. “Why do you want me to come with you? “

“Because I always said it was one of the most wonderful places in the world.”

She shrugged and said nothing.

“This may be the last chance I ever have to take you there.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “OK, but let me organize a few things.”

 I could’ve leaned across the desk and kissed her,

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“This country is so messed up. The police roadblocks and harassment,, the potholes, the power outages, the lack of civic services, running water. Doesn’t it get to you?” I asked.

Sophia took her time. “I never felt at home in South Africa,” she said. “Now that I am divorced and both my daughters have emigrated to Australia I have little to tie me to that place.

My inheritance, invested overseas gives me a steady cash flow. I have a few good clients down south and I can do their designs as easily here as I can there. So why not come home?” She looked at me to see my reaction. “With everyone wanting to escape, I can afford to live here.”

“What about your Jewishness?” I asked, “I remember it was important to you..” I gave her a fleeting glance. “I was told that the Jewish community has shrunk from five thousand to fifty.

“Yes, I always loved the traditions, but I am not as avidly observant anymore. Now tht my daughters are gone I don’t have a tradition to pass on to anyone. I am no longer as fervent a Jewess. Luckily, or should I say miraculously, two of my high school friends are still here, which gives me as much company as I need.”

I saw her smile teasingly at me. “There are also little surprises like you that may make it worthwhile.”

I push back the flare of bitter sweet longing that had been dormant for decades. How easily it could be tantalized to life with a few words.

The road wended its way south-west, past the barely functional agricultural research station, and the tired looking buildings of the Rhodes Elementary Preparatory School.

Gradually the scrubby thorn tree covered land began to be fill with rocky outcrops.

We were both silent as we took in the transformation of the countryside as it morphed from thorny scrubland into a giant granite Lego-land.

At the thatched archway entrance to the Matopos National Park I filled in our particulars. The smile of the portly Wharton who took our fees spread almost as wide on her face as the gaps between the buttons on the shirt of her khaki uniform, which was strained apart by the abundance of her bosom.

“The Rangers say that the rhino are close! You should see them if you take the Maleme dam loop” she said.

The excitedly animated tone of her voice was not reflected in the slow lethargy of her movements as she waddled across and lifted the boom letting us into the park.

“Thank you Mama, I will look for them,” I politely acknowledged her helpfulness. I thought how, despite its condition, this country is still full of lovely people.

Further into the hills at times it was as if we were driving through the hanging Gardens of Babylon. Tall and elegant Mountain acacia reached up to the sky from clefts in massive inselbergs, and below them the broad leaves of fig trees with their roots spreading over the granite like poured treacle, mingled their greenery with vine creepers. Elsewhere stacked like loaves of bread, huge boulders dominated the scene, with their rough surfaces painted with gentle brush strokes of delicate lichens., streaked through with the russet from the leaching of ferrous traces in the stone.

The road leading to the Togwane dam, and the signs that pointed the direction to the Inanke cave beyond it reflected the general state of the country. Not much had been touched in the last few decades.

Fortunately I remembered the way and the vehicle easily handle the rutted road to the dusty parking area with its forlorn guard room.

It was here that we were to begin our seven kilometer hike to the cave, but that was not before I signed another book presented by a wizened warden. He was pleased to see me. “We don’t get many people here.” the scrawny little man commented.

The magic of the walk out to the cave and its Holy Grail of rock art begins at the edge of a dusty parking area. We were immediately swallowed into the lush green tree canopy lining the bottom of the water courses like a dense morning fog.

“”It is hard to believe that it is three decades since we were last here.” I looked for the start of the trail. It was once well marked, but now it was hard to find and follow in the thick undergrowth which had reasserted itself.

Sophia had asked me to stop by her home to change into jeans and a cotton shirt, and she was also now wearing a pair of good hiking boots.

Maybe it was the change of clothes that made me feel that she was happier than the woman in mourning I had met in her office.

But then, how could the spirit of anyone not be lifted in this magical place?

“I’m glad you have good boots this time.” I pointed my chin at them. “Last time we got so close before you sprained your ankle, and the hell getting you back.” I added jokingly, ” If it happens again I will leave you there. I am too old now to carry you.”

Cresting a rise between two promontories we walked out from under the herbaceous opulence, to stand at the top of a granite slope. It looked down on an exotic valley edged with massive inselbergs and decorated with boulders the size of buildings, whose edges were blurred with the flutter of foliage and filled with the music of birds. The bark of a baboon, and the squeak of a Rock Hyrax enhanced the magic.

“Anyone not feeling the ambience of this place should check their pulse. I haven’t been here for so long and yet it still intoxicates me. I feel a reverence to nature.”

I pointed across the clearing. “If we tarried here long enough, like the ancient bushmen nganga’s , I am sure we would both be drawn to tithing with similar images like those that you can see etched in ochre under the overhanging rock wall over there.

For me it is always a pilgrimage.”

After a steep climb out of the narrow valley, with a jump across the stream forming its bottom, a gigantic granite face reared up before folding away to the south. Its crown tucked under itself like the crest of a wave sucking in its breath before crashing into the jumble of rocks at its feet.

I pointed to a sloping ledge half way up the face. “There used to be a Black Eagles nest on that ledge. It was huge, I guess it got so big itss weight slid it off.”

Sophia pointed higher up the cliff face further along the valley. ” Is that one of them?”

I was elated. “You have great eyes. Well spotted.”

Below the rock wall the sandy surface was sparsely vegetated. There was no need for us to concentrate on where to step. The old trek path was still discernable.

Beyond the cliff, a long granite slope spread upwards to one side. We could make out the faded arrows painted between clusters of hardy resurrection bushes,.

“I think we should take a good drink at this stage. We have quite a clim ahead of us.”

“Wasn’t it somewhere around here that I sprained my ankle on that last long ago hike?” Sophia looked at me quizzically.

“Yes,” I replied. “Let’s get going with a slow toe to heal pace.”

The dimples and roils of the granite slope lifted inexorably until, way off and high up ahead, they met the sky. The surface of the huge dome, like the blemished skin on the head of an old man was dotted and spotted with sporadic little clusters of stunted trees. These clung to life in the shallow scrapes of soil in any detritus filled hollow. Way up ahead, before the dome curved over the horizon, like a strip of hair missed by a careless man as he shaved, a prolific patch of vegetation was tucked into a crease in the rock. It was our destination.

With stinging tiredness in our legs we panted up the last few meters of the climb. After three decades, I was about to again come face to face with the Sistine Chapel in the Jerusalem of African rock art.

The faded arrows led up the southeast side of the big fold of bushes, behind which the cave spread back into the granite. From there we crossed higher up, so that the approach was from the west along a level shelf. It was more overgrown than I remembered, and required pushing aside branches and clambering over roots to make headway.

Finally, the cave opened up in high hallowed simplicity.

On its walls and ceiling were the eerie stylized stick figures of men running, moving and dancing, with parades of animals.

 There were the strange| dot decorated oval shapes, presumed to be honeycombs, or maybe an ants nest. Experts would explain the significance of the legs of the men painted the color of the big totem animals. They would point to the streams of potency spraying out from some of the figures. Or maybe they would tell how the dying shapes of a kudu signified the consummation of a marriage.

We stood in silence looking, absorbing its beauty. Logic disappeared.

The painters were gone. Unknown was their motive to produce such stark images. We could feel its spiritual effect,

I could see how Sophia was mesmerized. She too had fallen under its spell of the religious loneliness, set in a stupendous surreal sea of roiling rocks tumbling away as far as the eyes could see. It was made magnificent by being untouched, unspoiled, undefiled.

The only sound was the whispers of the wind through the shielding branches.

 Closing my eyes, I heard the whispers in my mind, and the tickle of a pebble rolling over the lip of the cave. Then another set of clicks as a pebble rolled again, with soft rustling ticks as its fall was cushioned by the leaves below. Two pebbles? One after the other!

My senses were jolted back to alertness as I peered through the shrubbery. There was a faint swish as branches were moved.

A tall lean figure approached.

He straightened, standing to look at me with the same stillness with which I returned his gaze. He was an African man, clad in olive fatigues. With a deeply lined face he had the grey hair of an elder. In his right hand he held an AK-47.

I recognized him.

“Kunjani” he said, “Hello”.

Unlike the previous times, he smiled, transforming his face with its friendliness.

“What are you doing here?” I asked suspiciously. He shrugged, and with the same distinctive African accent as when he had ordered me to leave Eddie he said,

“I work here!“

“But then what were you doing up on the Kafue?”

His smile broadened. “It has been many years since I was north of the Zambezi River.” He stepped closer and looked out over the vista. “I have worked as a warden in this park since independence.

“I saw you at the Kafue River up in Zambia two weeks ago!” I insisted.

“No.” The grey haired figure slowly shook his head. “Maybe you saw my brother. He stayed after the struggle, the Chimurenga. It is as well he did. He is heads-trong. Here he would’ve made a fuss and fought, and they would’ve killed him. The regime now is more brutal than the colonialists.”

I stared incredulously.

“I came back, and my brother stayed there”. A pause, “The Mlimo told us to do so. I have not seen him for many years.”

The tall figure narrowed his eyes, “My brother and I are identical twins.”

 I stared at him.

He stepped closer until he stood beside me. The three of us stood in silence and looked out at the magnificent vista.

“It is good that you have brought your M’fazi this time, your woman.”

I started to interject, but he motioned me to be quiet.

“Because the Mlimo told me to welcome you. They knew you would be here with her.”

Ignoring Sophia, again he reached out and touched my arm to keep me from speaking.

“The Mlimo said to tell you that it is good that you have the son of the White Witch helping you.

Together with my brother you will be able to cleanse the land.

I looked at him incredulously.

With his deep slow African voice he said, “Isn’t it so beautiful! It is why I come back here!”

I remembered saying them to a beautiful ginger gold haired girl standing beside me in these hills long ago.

But hearing them echoed from this grey haired man of Africa, it gave me a sense of restored equilibrium.

Maybe it would turn out alright. My old Africa would accept me back after all.