Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Ride the Tortoise

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My left breast is cool and pale. The right one is shiny and red, a furious apple. The nipple has disappeared, so the baby can't latch when I try to feed him on the front seat of the car. I lift my shirt, but his fists pummel my unyielding flesh. He nuzzles the other side, but it's empty, hasn't filled up since his last unsatisfactory feeding. I jiggle him up and down until he falls asleep to a tenor singing Mahler's Kindertotenliede on the sound system. My husband says I must put him back in the car seat, for safety reasons. He reads aloud in snatches from the guide book balanced on the steering wheel.
Covering much of the central Namib Desert and the Naukluft Mountains, the Namib Naukluft Park is home to some of the rarest and weirdest plant and animal species in the world.
I don't want to put the baby back. He'll wake because he's still hungry, and there isn't another car in sight. We haven't passed anything but stones on this ruler-straight road for two hours. My husband will insist though, telling me it's the rule of the road, the law. He's the driver. He'll say he doesn't want to argue with South West Afri... he'll correct himself, Namibian traffic cops. He's not going to languish in foreign jails on account of my refusing to strap the bloody baby in. I want him to stop the car so I can get out and return the baby to the car seat more easily, so I can get a drink from the cooler in the boot. If I ask he'll say he doesn't want to stop unnecessarily, will want to know why I can't just stretch through the seats?
I should try to reason with him. I should say, Ja Liefie, there are many things we don't want to stop unnecessarily, like me playing the contrabassoon in the orchestra for the last symphony season. I had to stop. For the baby. Some things we must do for the little ones. The low vibrations of the instrument shook right through my belly to loosen the lining of my womb. I didn't know I was in premature labour. I hadn't wanted to interrupt the maestro unnecessarily in the middle of the symphony concert.
Everything was fine again when I got home and lay on my bed. For a while. I hadn't wanted to disturb the doctor unnecessarily in the middle of the night with my aching back. An aching back is a normal complaint of pregnancy. I'd thought I was imagining things when the weak contractions began twelve weeks early.
I should say, Please stop. He's getting too heavy. It hurts my back to twist and lift.
The baby wakes later and his crying starts my milk again. I lift my shirt and a small spray escapes onto the dashboard. I cover the flow quickly, but it drips on the seat. My husband swerves to a stop, dabbing the dashboard with a handkerchief. "Get out," he says, "I don't want a sticky mess."
My daughter sucks her thumb. "My baby is crying too," she says. "Dolly wants milk. Waah waah waah." The doll, the tenor and the baby chant a bizarre desert counterpoint. Brahms' Lullaby would have been a better choice than this lament for all the dead infants of the earth. Poor Mahler, poor Mrs Mahler who lost their child to scarlet fever.
I stand beside the crimson Audi, refusing to cry, kneading my recalcitrant breast, waiting for it to burst and flow. The telephone poles along the road stretch from Helmeringhausen to Sesriem, miles of dust and low thorn bushes. We're travelling through the Maltehöhe region. Our destination is the Duwisib Castle. This morning we left the mineral springs at Eis-Eis.
The mineral springs were rumoured to have healing properties for arthritis, lung complaints and nervous disorders.
Milk from the good breast spurts in a pale arc onto the hot tar, where it turns to steam. I wish it were feeding my boy, but the blockage on the other side won't budge. After a while, the spurting arc turns into a dribble, falling on my shoes. when it dries, it will linger, tacky on my skin. My husband adjusts the volume on the car stereo to drown out the hungry screams.
"Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn..." sings the soloist over marching violins. Now the sun will rise as brightly as if no misfortune had occurred in the night.
I steady myself on the wing mirror, holding only the frame so as not to leave fingerprints on the glass. The telephone poles disappear into the pink mountains in one direction and into the desert in the other. How long will my husband wait? He turns the music up a little more. He does that when he's irritated. Once, back at home, before we had children, he got tired of waiting for me, so he drove off without me. I took too long, he said later when I arrived at the party in a taxi.
If he drives away now, will he leave the children with me? Maybe he'll drive off, to scare me, as a joke. If he takes the children, it won't be funny. Will I plod from pole to pole? I press my breast and listen to the voices sparking along the drooping cable.
"Sind Sie dort?" Are you there? "Ich bin nicht hier!" The voices whisper: I am not here. Where are you? There's no one here.
If I can hold out to the castle, there must surely be a hot shower, but if he leaves me, will I crumple and stop breathing, or will I crawl from pole to pole, dragging my nipples through the desert sand?
The telephone poles watch me massage that plug. It must work its way out soon, so that the baby can latch again. I press and press but nothing happens. I twist my nipple hoping to roll the blockage out, wanting to scream at the pain, not wanting to scare my little girl rocking in her car seat, with her fingers in her ears. She also does not like Mahler.
When I get in the car my husband reads aloud from the map:
The Castle lies 1475 m above sea level, and its geographical co-ordinates are 25° 15' 48" South and 16° 32' 40" East.
The whole journey has been an expensive trip undertaken in a bid to get to know each other again. Eight months after my baby's arrival, my husband wants the bedroom back to normal.
"When we get home," he says, "the baby can go on the bottle; he'll sleep in the cot in the next room." I will offer my breasts to my husband instead. He thinks it's a good idea if I go back to work and play in the orchestra again. "It will be nice for you," he says. "It's not a big job, after all, to play the contrabassoon. Mostly you just sit and wait, play a few long notes here and there and go home again afterwards. It will get you out the house a bit, give you something to do. It's good for a woman to have her own interests," he says.
Dead Vlei is a vast dent of dry, compacted clay dotted with the ghostly figures of ancient camel thorn trees, preserved by the heat and dry air.
The trip is supposed to accomplish all that. We've driven 7 000 km hardly speaking to each other - a silence untouched by crying children and the weight of Mahler, punctuated only by comments he has shared from the guide book.
The San people used the milky latex produced by Euphorbias to prepare their poisoned hunting arrows and also to poison water holes.
The noise in my head gathers again, layers of sounds, the low moan of the dunes, a weeping welwitchia mirabilis, the stones on the grumbling hills that mutter and hiss a dark percussion. And always Mahler adding his sorrow. I hope there will be a shower cubicle with a sharp edge where we are going, so I might bang my head under very hot water to drown out the clamour.
We arrive early afternoon. The wind has an icy edge. There is a shower in a vast cool bathroom, but only a feeble trickle emerges from the rattling pipe. My skin is gooseflesh and my nipples contract. I press the thickened spot and massage downward under the tepid water, toward the nipple, like the clinic sister showed me. My hard breast will not ooze a single milky tear.
Last time the duct was blocked, I stood under the shower and massaged my breast, stroking downwards, over and over. The noise in my head got louder, like piccolos warming up, joined by a sax, an oboe and then a hundred violins, each tuning to a different pitch. I had to get the plug out. I turned the water up, hotter, until it scalded my skin. Eventually the blockage burst from my nipple and pinged against the glass door. The release was instant. A solid jet of milk drummed against the tiles and a blue-white swirl flowed down the drain. My head was finally still.
There are no sharp edges to this shower, just a shallow rim of bricks with a plastic curtain that hangs from a sagging rail. I bang my head on the outermost wall, next to the window, on the other side of the bungalow from where my husband minds the babies. I flush the toilet to mask the sound, but the ritual is incomplete and unsatisfying. Without hot water, without the sharp edge, there can be no purge of breast or brain in this alien spot.
My husband calls through the bathroom door, urges me to hurry. The scheduled tour of the castle begins in twenty minutes. We didn't come all this way to miss it. I need a hot compress. If I could soak a towel and microwave it, but there is no electricity. I keep forgetting. I look for a hot water bottle. I could heat a kettle on the gas flame. Could I put a soaked towel in the gas oven? My throbbing breast must wait until after the tour.
"The castle was built by Baron Captain Heinrich von Wolf in 1909," says the tour guide who has no lips. I stare at the vast chandelier in the abandoned castle. My husband compares what the tour guide says with the notes in his brochure. "The Baron returned to Dresden after the Nama-Herero uprising and married the step-daughter of the US consul."
The chandelier begins to vibrate. Nobody else notices. It is the beating of the Baron's heart that echoes still in the castle's 22 empty rooms. When I ask the tour guide if it beats from hope or horror, my husband says, "Now, now, that will do," and asks the tour guide about the severe oil portraits hanging on the wall: who was the artist, and when were they painted?
"The Baron and his wife," says the guide as we continue into the next room, "commissioned an architect to build the castle. He wanted it to reflect his commitment to the German Military cause. The building materials were imported from Germany, and travelled 600 km by ox-wagons after landing at Lüderitz."
My daughter wants to feed the tortoise the Baron left behind. I am scared it will bite off her hand. It is a revengeful giant, sore still at being abandoned. The tour guide says the tortoise is four hundred years old. I watch its ancient eyes. They have a rabid look.
My husband braais under a black sky hung with an infinitude of crystal drops. After dinner we watch shooting stars. My heart beats like the Baron's and I know that one hundred feral horses are galloping toward us both, the Baron and me. The Baron strolls over to our stoep and pulls up a chair, asking us to please excuse his shabby attire. "I've been at war," he says. We drink a Meerlust Cabernet under the stars. It tempers the cold night air. The baby niggles at the good breast. My daughter wants to watch TV. She doesn't like strangers and wants to go inside, to watch Teletubbies or Barney. I explain that TV doesn't work on gas. She wants Smarties. She wants to go home. She cries herself to sleep in a lumpy bed with a scratchy woollen blanket.
I try again after the Baron has left, to help my son to latch on my swollen breast after he's emptied the other one. He cries and cries in the wavery gaslight. I jiggle him on my hip, rubbing my fingers over his gums. I recite the names of the regions of Namibia: Caprivi, Erongo, Hardap, Karas, Okavango, Khomas, Kunene, Ohangwena, Omaheke, Omusati, Oshana, Oshikoto, Otjozondjupa.
The baby has a fever. I knock the bottle of mint green medicine over in the dark. The spill is sticky in my slippers. I recite the names of the German settlers who left their boldly coloured homes dotted around the desert, with pointed roofs, so the snow wouldn't accumulate on their balconies and turrets. They should have stayed at home with Herr Heckel and Herr Püchner and Herr Mollenhauer who fashioned bocals and bells for bassoons instead.
At 2 am the croup starts. Babies die from that - even back in Jo'burg, at Morningside Clinic, with paediatricians and oxygen tents. I try to boil the kettle over the gas stove, but it makes puny steam. The kitchen is cold. I don't know what to do. I remember the telephone poles and want to call my mother. She would tell me to keep the baby upright. I sit him in my arms, to keep him from crying, to keep his airways open a little longer. I recite the list of composers who wrote studies for the bassoon: Giampieri, Milde, Orefici, Oubradous, Ozi, Piard, Pivonka, Weissenborn.
The tour guide had spoken in a voice that sounded like snakes winding across the desert, telling of stonemasons from Italy, Switzerland and Ireland, hired to build the castle. Did they leave their wives and babies at home with their violins and tambourines? Am I the first woman to nurse a sick child at this castle? Were there even any ghosts left here to tell me what to do?
The tour guide had said in a voice that sounded like thorn trees rattling in the wind, of how the First World War broke out while the Baron travelled to Europe in 1914. The ship carrying him and his wife was diverted to Rio. Lush Rio, warm Rio, Rio of hot sand and sultry beaches, bananas and guavas, melons and pawpaws. Oh Baron, why didn't you take me with you when you left this barren spot? Come back for me, come back for my babies.
At 3 am I call a doctor 150 km away. I hope he might tell me how to humidify the desert by sprinkling milk on the stars or tears in the dust, but he says, "Jawol, you know that Jayta, the Baron's wife, has found passage to Europe on a Dutch ship, and the Baron is disguised as a woman to avoid arrest. On arrival in Europe, the Baron is scheduled to rejoin the German army."
"So what must I do, Herr Doktor?"
"Keep the baby on the breast and disguise yourself as a man," he says. "I'll see you in the morning at my rooms."
"How will I get there?"
"Make a plan."
At 4 am I call the maestro, to ask him to perform the last rites telephonically. He says, "I am occupied, on the battlefield of the Somme, giving the last rites to soldiers dying in the mud. The noise inside your head is bothering me."
"There's no sharp edge in this shower and flat walls don't help," I say.
"Make a plan," he says. "How can I perform my spiritual duty when you're making such a din?"
I want to tie my baby on my back and creep through the dark, over the rocky ground back to the castle. I want to find the armoire where the antique weapons are stored, but the Baron has returned and blocks the door. He refuses to let me pass.
"Was wollen Sie?" he asks, ushering me back to bed.
I want a gun. It seems a good idea under such difficult circumstances. "Ich brauche ein Gewehr," I say, unaware I can speak German. I didn't know the word for 'gun' was 'gewehr'. Or have I forgotten?
"Haben Sie ein Gewehr?" he asks.
I do not have a gun. He tells me I should do my wifely duty. I say the trip isn't practical. Not with a baby and a toddler. We should have stayed home. The castle could have waited. A sound begins like a flock of birds landing on the roof.
"Wife, do your duty."
I tell him it's not practical to play the contrabassoon any more. The reeds are too hard, the instrument too heavy. I do not like to play it. I do not want to perform. The sound is the rattling spiccato of poisoned arrows shaking in a quiver.
"Put the child down. You must obey."
I tell him the child is sick; I must keep him upright. The Baron finally hears the sound and says, "My horses, my horses. They're returning to the stables." But horses don't sound like pebbles on glass. He crosses to the window and casts open the curtains. By the starlight glinting off his buttons and buckle, a many-armed brown woman enters, riding the tortoise. She takes off her shoes revealing the feet of a girl.
At first I think she's a Teutonic Kali, who will wrap my legs around the Baron's neck and show me how to bite off his head. I say, "Kali, Kali, will you lift up my chin and guide my teeth? I've never done this before. Please teach me how to drink his blood."
"Hush, hush," says the woman, wiping my brow. She blows on coals in an ancient pot and sprinkles herbs that flare and sizzle.
I say, "Kali, Kali, bring me those guns; one in each hand: for my daughter, for my son; one in my mouth, one thrust between my legs."
"Hush, hush," says the woman, taking my baby in two wrinkled old arms. She rocks and holds him, a hot pack to his chest. A swirl of eucalyptus scents the room, moistened air which frizzes his hair.
"Hush, hush," says the woman, as two arms, with skin neither young, nor yet crepey unbutton my pyjamas. She lifts my red-streaked breast in one hand, holding a warm poultice to my burning skin. The air smells of mustard and bitter yearning. The baby sneezes, saying, "Bless you."
The many-armed brown woman slices open the spiked leaf of an aloe, scrapes its glistening gel and smears it on my breast. She massages it down from my arm pit in small circular motions, blowing on the hot spot and talking to the tortoise; pulling and kneading with her fingertips until the plug breaks free.
The milk jets onto the hot coals and hisses a fragrant cloud of steam, "Sie sind nicht allein." The baby sneezes again, saying, "Bless you."

This work was first published in Chimurenga, Vol. 11, July 2007, a South African print journal.


Liesl Jobson is a Johannesburg artist. Her writing has appeared in international journals and anthologies The Southern Review, The Mississippi Review, Diner, 3:AM, Snow*vigate, elimae, Noö Journal and LICHEN and South African publications Chimurenga, New Coin, Timbila, New Contrast and Fidelities. She received the 2005 Ernst van Heerden Award from Wits University for “100 Papers” her anthology of flash fiction. This collection will be published by Botsotso in Spring 2008.


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