Thinking about who you were and how it would be if you weren’t you was fun, was a way of making yourself dizzy without spinning, which damaged the brain and so was forbidden. The first time Marta realized that she was Marta and no one else, was the day she met Ishmael.
She had learnt her date of birth –24 April 1967 – because she did not want to be like the orphans of Mother’s war, who were lost for not remembering their names and birthdates and hometowns. But she did not think being born was a real beginning, not of her; of her body perhaps and for her parents, but not for her. The day Marta properly began was 25 August 1972, because Ishmael, who had been fearless in the forest, had been scared of the open lawn of her garden.
Marta stood perplexed and half-frightened herself of her daily world, as she looked at the cowering form of her friend. This friend, who was so quick in the forest, who knew everything in the forest and was scared of nothing in the forest, was cowering now, covering his eyes – his whole face from the brightness of the sun.
‘What is it?’ Marta asked, trying to pull the thin brown arm away from his face and his shivering body up at the same time. Ishmael whispered something through his snuffling. Marta had to bend down to hear, finally squatting to wait, as she had seen Narina do when she coaxed orphaned chicks to start eating:
‘What is it?’ she asked again, growing impatient.
‘It is so bright,’ Ishmael said, ‘so bright, there are no trees.’
‘Yes, there are,’ Marta contradicted him. She pulled his arm as she stood up to point at the apple trees in the orchard.
But he did not look up and hissed, ‘Hide your shadow,’ tugging her back down.
‘So the ancestors don’t see it.’
‘The ancestors must never see your whole shadow.’
‘They will take you away – to the land where there are only shadows.’
‘To punish you – for your wickedness, for your bad blood.’
‘I don’t have bad blood.’
‘How do you know?’
‘My grandparents told me – that’s why I am wicked and they must beat me – and then hide me, in the forest, amongst the half-shadows, when the police come.’
Marta felt the twist of that word in her stomach. Distracted, she missed the moment he had turned, crouching to run back into the forest. She heard the rustling, saw the flash of movement, and followed. When they finally stopped and lay panting next to each other on the dark floor, she looked curiously at the scratches on their arms and the blood trickling from them.
‘Look Ishmael, our blood is the same.’
They examined the scratches. Marta caught his blood on her fingertips and held it up to the light to see if she could see the wickedness.
‘Can you see it?’ she asked.
‘Perhaps you need to look in the dark,’ he moved her hand into the shade.
‘Now can you see it?’ he asked.
‘Well, perhaps you don’t know how wickedness looks.’
‘I do, too.’
‘How does it look, then?’
‘It’s fierce and angry – like the Roman soldiers in the Bible.’
‘Because mine is blood-wickedness.’
‘Jesus could take it away for you.’
‘Yes, he could, too. My father says …’
But Ishmael was gone, before she could tell him what her father said about Jesus and wickedness.
Marta found him, lying in the orchard at the edge of the lawn, looking into the bright light. He had not liked being afraid.
‘I don’t think your ancestors will come into my father’s garden.’
‘Because it’s my father’s. He does not believe in ancestors, only in God.’
Gradually Ishmael ventured onto the lawn. He stretched his arm out and wiggled his fingers in the light. They stayed whole.
Then he crawled onto the grass, shifted to his heels, and gradually stood up. He stared down at his shadow – green and whole.
‘That’s me,’ he whispered.
‘Yes, and here’s me.’ She stood next to him.
‘Bet yours can’t catch mine.’
‘Bet it can.’
But he ran almost too fast for his own shadow to catch him – so Marta knew he was still afraid.
When they were tired of running in the sun, Marta showed Ishmael how to make a butterfly shape with his hands against the light. And a wolf. They played shadow games, disguising their dark, flat selves as bloubokkies and wild pigs by climbing on each others’ backs and using their arms as tusks and horns.
‘Now no ancestor can find me,’ Ishmael was glad at last.
But try as they might, even between them, in the late afternoon when shadows were long, they could not make an elephant shape.
They stood together, panting, waiting for their shadows to reach the trees. And as they watched them grow, Marta knew that she was Marta; shapes might change in changing light, but she was Marta and next to her stood Ishmael, for whom this lawn was not home. Yet now he sat in the shade with her, drinking the Oros Mother had brought out to them.
Mother was not entirely happy with this addition to Marta’s days. Marta heard her talking in the evenings when she had gone to the kitchen to get some water.
‘Johannes,’ she had said to Father, ‘All we know about Ishmael is that he is a handful; too much for Solomon and Ellie and that Narina can barely bring herself to acknowledge his existence.’
‘Anita,’ her father’s voice was stern, ‘that is not the child’s fault.’
‘No, but maybe there’s a reason. Maybe we should not let Marta play with him every day.’
‘The reason is what happened seven years ago.’ He stopped and his voice was suddenly louder: ‘Marta, go to bed.’
Marta went to bed and thought about the day. It had begun like any other day. Jacob, Ruth and Simon had gone off to school, which left her to play with baby Ben. She pushed his small cart about the lawn and he crowed happily, gurgling ‘Mada’ now and again. She had sung him the song of the little hunchback imp: full of mischief all day, but in the evening asking to be remembered in a child’s prayers. It was Ben’s favorite and Marta tried to imitate Simon’s actions to make him laugh, and though she knew it was not the same, Ben did not mind. Ben did not see any reason to begin speaking – everyone understood him anyway.
That morning she had taken him to the edge of the dam, after they had fed the rabbits. She knew they were not to go up on the wall, but the willow branches were hanging low and the catkins were just, just coming out.
‘Look Ben, look, the catkins are out. It will be Christmas soon.’ And Ben had stroked the small grey furry catkins delicately and with shining eyes.
Then her father had come back unexpectedly from his rounds of the farm and parish. He walked quickly into the house, called first her mother and then Narina. Then he had come, calling urgently to where she was playing with Ben.
‘Marta,’ he said, ‘I need you to come with me.’ And she was so proud though Ben had cried to see her go.
Father stopped the car where the road came to an end, the forest too tangled and the road too steep for the car to go on. Dimly, between the vast trees, she could make out a lonely, small house. They both got out and Marta swung on her father’s arm, when she could, as they walked towards it. Her father explained that the people who lived here, so deep in the forest, were Narina’s parents and that her child lived with them.
‘Why are we visiting them?’
‘Narina’s mother is very ill.’
Suddenly the dappled bright morning with her father beneath the trees had dark fingers reaching out to them. They walked on quietly, saving their breath and keeping their eyes only on the treacherous ground.
Her father knocked gently on the door and then they waited – and waited –for it to open. Marta thought she heard a rustle and a snort of laughter in the leaves at the side of the house and with a brief glance for her father’s permission, she went off to investigate. She glimpsed the strangest child she had ever seen: his skin was neither dark nor pale but somewhere in-between and on his head was a shock of curly hair, hanging down to his shoulders. His eyes were shimmery green, like the forest on a cloudless day.
‘Hey,’ she called, ‘hallo, I’m Marta.’
But he had thrown a stone at her and then run away. Marta followed immediately, anger at her stinging arm overcoming the fear of never having been so deep into the dark forest before. He would allow her just another glimpse of his yellow T-shirt before he darted off again – like an animal, quick and easy over the forest floor, without making a sound. Yet if she looked like she might give up, he would stop longer, allow her to catch up and point silently to a bird or a flower – or even the bright orange mushrooms that grew on the fallen trees. When she opened her mouth to speak to him, he laid his finger on his lips and sprang away again.
They played this cat-and-mouse game for a long time until she sat down and cried with exhaustion and bewilderment; for the forest here was darker than any she had been in before, and she suddenly had lost all sense of the markers of her world – Father, Mother, Narina, Ben – and she was afraid.
‘Crybaby,’ he mocked, ‘listen, the loerie is warning the forest that a crybaby has come into the forest. All the birds are laughing at you.’
That stopped her crying. ‘What?’
But he was no longer interested in her tears. ‘Listen.’
So Marta listened and heard the deep hoarse caw, caw, caw and the bubbling that followed.
‘Where, where is the loerie?’ She asked eagerly, for she could not see the bird. But when she had dried her tears, she saw the young trees just beginning to come up through the forest floor; the mushrooms, banded and bright orange on the side of the ironwoods. As she walked on with him he no longer ran from her.
Instead he had suddenly grabbed her shoulders and pushed her forward, to where the forest floor dropped away. He held her for a moment, just above the glistening of winking gold on the floor of the river and she had screamed and he had laughed and pulled her back. She was furious and slapped him, but he caught her arms and told her he was playing.
‘Playing? Playing? That was dangerous.’ She spoke primly, the way her mother spoke when they had been too rough with Ben.
Just then they had heard her father call in the distance. Ishmael, whose name she had not yet known, placed his finger on his lips and motioned to her to hunker down in the undergrowth and then crawled deeper into the forest. But she had pulled him back. He slapped her hands away, anger distorting his face.
‘Your grandmother is ill,’ Marta said, ‘we must not worry them.’ She got up, left him there in the undergrowth alone and headed back towards her father’s voice. He had sulked with her and thrown a few stones but then followed, secretly impressed with her, though he would not look at her.
She in turn found him fascinating; and she stored away his refusal of an adult’s command to think about later. No one she knew would ever have done that so brazenly. She found it a little frightening, and very, very interesting. Marta watched him walk in the trees and only then had she thought to ask his name.
‘Ishmael,’ he said, ‘my name is Ishmael.’
She stared at him: ‘Ishmael? Like in the Bible?’
‘I don’t know anything about that,’ he had answered rudely and she thought he might throw a stone again.
So she smiled at him. ‘It is a beautiful name,’ she said.
He smiled back – for the first time – and his eyes were alight as he darted swiftly towards her and kissed her cheek, before ducking back into the forest. She wanted to follow him but her father’s voice was louder now.
‘Come on, Marta. Did you find Ishmael?’
Inside the small dark house which was cramped and smelt of illness, Narina’s old father, who could barely move for arthritis at the cold end of winter, laboriously made tea for Marta and her father. There was even a Marie biscuit for her on a white enamel plate with roses on. The tea was thick and sweet and relaxing but Father was concerned.
‘Solomon,’ he was saying patiently, ‘you and Ellie cannot possibly look after the boy now that he has become so difficult.’
‘Umfundisi, what must we do?’ the old man replied, clearly not expecting an answer. ‘Narina cannot have him; she is busy,’ he went on, ‘and the child is wicked and harder to hide now. She cannot live with that sin every day staring at her.’
‘Well, she may have to. He is her child and she cannot forever hide him from the world, or from herself.’ Her father sounded firm and like he meant something more than was said. Marta had been shocked at Solomon’s words – she had never seen her father accept that a child be called wicked before. But his warning on her arm kept her quiet too. So she asked no questions, but resolved to love Ishmael always.
‘It is hard, Umfundisi Johannes,’ the old man said quietly.
‘I know,’ he said, more gently now, ‘I know – but she cannot leave him here as your problem. He is hers. You and Ellie are too old for such a lively child. And a firmer, younger hand will be good for him.’
‘I will help,’ Marta said loudly, wanting them to realize that she was there and listening. ‘I will play with him.’
They had turned to look at her and her father had nodded at the old man.
‘It might be good for him to be around other children.’
Just then a groan came from the other room and a querulous voice called words Marta did not understand.
Solomon sighed. ‘I will go and pack his things.’
‘Good,’ her father said, while Marta began to sidle out, wanting to tell Ishmael.
‘But Umfundisi,’ the old man paused anxiously.
‘Yes, what is it, Solomon?’
‘Do not blame Ellie and me for his wickedness – it is his blood.’
‘Solomon, don’t say that.’ Now the father she knew was back, ‘He is God’s child, no matter how he came into the world. He loves Ishmael as he loves all His children.’
‘Well,’ Solomon said, ‘you have not met this one. He is a punishment from the ancestors. I only hope you have a strong whip.’
Marta had opened her mouth to ask why, but again her father had laid a warning hand on her arm and shaken his head.
‘Not now,’ he said softly as the old man shuffled away into the darkness of the next room where Marta could hear labored breathing. She looked questioningly at her father.
‘It is pneumonia,’ he said, ‘her lungs are struggling and we must take her to the hospital. Ishmael must come and stay with us for a while – with his mother.’ There was more, Marta felt it, but she did not know how to ask and guessed she would not get answers now. Her father and Solomon carried the old woman to the back seat of the car where they bedded her down. She smiled and cried all at once, deeply embarrassed by the fuss she was creating. Marta was asked to find Ishmael. She called at first and then went to walk around the untidily cleared patch of garden surrounding the house. She called again.
‘I-i-i-shma-a-a-el,’ she cried. When she was ready to give up, he sauntered out of the forest just where she had been calling and walked casually to the car.
His grandfather had been relieved to see him but her father looked sternly at him: she could tell by the lines around his mouth that he was angry. ‘Young man,’ he said, placing a firm hand on Ishmael’s shoulder. ‘You know your grandmother is sick?’
Ishmael’s eyes flickered as he tried to twist out of her father’s grasp. But her father turned him round to face him. ‘Do you?’
‘Yes.’ The eyes were insolent as they looked up at her father.
‘Well, you should not have kept us waiting – she needs to go to hospital.’ Marta had never seen her father’s anger evaporate so fast.
The boy looked briefly contrite but was distracted almost instantly by the car and sitting in front near the steering wheel and cubby hole and the windows which slid up and down when he pressed the buttons Marta never dared to touch. Her father looked at him and turned to Solomon and Marta where they stood in stunned silence outside the car. ‘Solomon, have you locked up?’
‘Right, you go in the back with Ellie, try to keep her comfortable – but you know what the road is like. Marta jump in front with Ishmael and sit next to the door please. Try to keep him from fiddling with everything – and from falling out.’
‘Yes, Father,’ she said. She could not believe her luck, sitting in front! She glanced back at Ellie and noticed how her dark skin glowed with the fever and her eyes were weak and glazed. And her gratitude turned liquid in her stomach. When her father came round and opened his door, she asked, ‘Is she going to be alright, Father?’
He looked over at her, ‘We will do our best, for now she must get to hospital and she must not worry. So you will have to keep Ishmael quiet here in the car, while Narina and her father are at the hospital with me. I will leave them as soon as I can, but it may be difficult.’
‘Yes, Father.’ She had sat up straight in the front of the car, and pretended to show Ishmael where they would go on the map. He did not believe her but turned the map around and around in fascination, all the way to George and the hospital, where they had to wait. Eventually both Ishmael and Marta lost interest in the map and then Narina arrived. Ishmael did not even look at her. Still they had to wait and Marta told Ishmael stories from a book which lay on the front seat when he got restless.
But he was soon wild from sitting still so long in the sticky breathlessness of the car, watching the mist rolling in from the mountain. He became sullen, but was too frightened of the loud, shadowless street to climb out and run away. Being frightened made him mad and he clambered around on the seats, leaving smeared handprints on all the windows till Marta cried, knowing what a row there would be. But when Father had come back to the car, he had only taken one look at her face and at Ishmael’s heightened feverish color and said nothing. He had simply driven home as fast as he could. At the gate he let them out before parking the car. Two steps from the car, Ishmael had collapsed into his crouch, covering his face and crying at the light.
After the shadow games and a drink, they had played in the forest, where they had chased each other with relief, trying to forget what had happened before, in the car and the garden. They climbed trees and galloped on imaginary horses until late in the evening when Jacob had come to call her in to supper. Ishmael had stood square between her and Jacob; had eyed him up and down and then dashed into the forest without a word.
‘What was that all about?’ Jacob had asked.
‘I don’t think he knows many people.’
‘Oh,’ Jacob said, ‘Ishmael,’ he called, ‘Ishmael, she will be back tomorrow.’
Ishmael had come out from under the trees then and stood shyly just at the edge and waved as they walked away. Marta turned to wave, too.
‘Marta,’ he had called, ‘Marta, don’t forget me in the morning.’
Just then Narina had come and taken Ishmael by the hand and led him squirming into his new house.
‘Jacob,’ Marta said, ‘Ishmael is afraid of the sun because he has bad blood. And his ancestors will find his shadow.’
‘Marta,’ Jacob rounded on her, ‘Marta, never say something like that again.’
‘But he told me,’ she was surprised at his fierceness.
‘And father will tell you there’s no such thing as ancestors finding your shadow.’ Jacob paused and looked at her face and spoke more quietly. ‘Probably he is just afraid of the sun, because he has lived in the dim shelter of the forest all his life.’
‘Yes,’ she had agreed meekly, thinking of their shadow games.
‘But he will learn not to be afraid. Like I did with the sea.’
‘Yes, probably he will learn.’ And they had raced home; Jacob had let her almost win.
The morning dawned with news from the hospital that Ishmael’s grandmother had died. Father and Mother had gone to the funeral with Narina, but they had not taken either Marta or Ishmael, though Marta knew to be good and quiet for Narina for a while. If Ishmael felt the loss at all he did not show it and he was not good or quiet. That made Mother worry about him, and she often talked to Narina about it, but Marta did not want to hear any of that and was glad when Father insisted Ishmael be given a chance.
And so on Monday when the others were all at school and Ben was with Narina, she had slipped out of the back gate and gone to find Ishmael. She found him sitting under a Kalander making strange soft clucking, hissing noises.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Shhh,’ he hissed at her and pointed up into the tree. Marta peered and peered.
‘I can see nothing,’ she said finally.
Just at that point a branch swung clumsily in the air and there was a blur of green and red.
‘What was that?’
Proud to be able to inform her, he had forgotten his anger at her disturbance.
‘That was the loerie,’ he said, and beckoned her to follow him.
They followed the jewel-green bird all morning, copying its call, until it grew tired of them and flew over the river in disgust. Ishmael told her what he knew about the bird.
‘You only see her if she wants you to see her,’ he said. ‘She does not like people.’
‘But she lets you see her?’
‘She knows me – they all do.’
‘Will they let me find them, too?’
‘If you’re with me.’
It was enough at that moment.
‘Why is she so careful?’
‘She is the watcher. She used to be the watcher for the elephants, too. She used to warn them when people came into the forest.’
‘How do you know?’
‘My grandfather has always lived in the forest, and our ancestors came to this forest from the frontier wars.’
‘He knew the forest when there were elephants?’
‘Will he tell me about them one day?’ Marta was still afraid of that stern old man who thought Ishmael had bad blood and who lived all alone in the forest now. So she was relieved when he only said,
‘If he wants to.’
But after that, Marta always listened for the warning voice, which underlay the lightness of the piet-my-vrou and the finches as the trees dappled and shaded the bright sun. And because he had told her about the loerie, she told him about the sea, which he had not seen.
The sea, like the forest, had always been there, she supposed, waiting before she had seen it. She remembered vividly; the smell warned her first – saltiness invaded the slightly sour dark smell of the fynbos: its leaves and wood and mud. Gradually the saltiness blew away the forest smell. Marta realised then how huge the smell was, that it came from something much bigger than the forest, stronger and open in a way even the garden could never be. And she felt rising in her a mixture of excitement and fear, which she sensed also in the others as they came closer. Ruth, Jacob and Simon had all tumbled out of the car in their hurry and raced far away, dropping over the edge of the world leaving Marta standing by the side of the car alone. She cried out and took her mother’s hand. ‘What is it?’ she asked, ‘what is it?’
‘It is the sea, Marta, it is just the sea.’
Her mother picked her up and walked more quietly over the edge of the world while Marta could hear her father calling instructions to Ruth and Jacob. There were wooden stairs there and when the stairs ended there was sand, which fiercely burned her feet, clinging to them as she lifted them back from its sinking sensation. The calls of her brothers and sister had made her look up from its strange feel between her toes and she saw the shining silver lying on the edge of the sand. She had run over to it, wanting to touch that silver, but then she stopped short. Its voice went on forever and hung in a salty mist above its own silvery vastness; the sky loved this big thing, came down really close to it. Marta felt her chest expand inside. She thought it might burst through her ribs so big it grew. But tears made it deflate again.
Jacob scooped her up and carried her into the sea. And, clinging to his neck, she laughed fiercely when she felt the water tug at her legs, so as not to cry.
‘Isn’t it great, Marta?’ Jacob had yelled in her ear.
‘It roars, Jacob, it roars.’
‘Roar back,’ he said, swinging her so that her legs swept through the foaming tops of the waves. ‘Roar back!’
And she and Jacob roared and capered wildly, trying to match their thin voices to the wide rush of the sea.
Though the sea was so huge, it had let them roar with it.
They had stayed till after dark when Jacob and Simon built a fire and they all sat round it on the sand, huddled in old blankets, watching the flames dance and crackle on the driftwood. After a while, her father asked, ‘Well, Marta, what did you think of the sea?’
‘Yes, that’s why I like to come here,’ he had replied.
‘Why?’ Simon had joined them.
‘To remember how small I am. How small my problems and troubles are, which seem so big to me.’
‘Johannes,’ her mother’s voice warned.
‘It’s just perspective, Anita,’ he replied, ‘they will all need it here.’ He turned to Marta and her brothers and sister again, ‘So when you feel that your problems are too big to be manageable, or you think too much of yourself, spend a little time at the sea, will you?’
They were all quiet for a bit, till Jacob said: ‘Solomon told me a story about the sea.’
‘Is it a true story?’ Marta asked.
‘I’m not sure, it is hard to tell with Solomon and Bosman, especially when they get together and talk.’
‘Oh, they came to get their monthly supplies this week, did they?’ their mother asked.
‘Yes, and when I told them we were going to the sea, they told me about Nongqawuse.’
‘Nonkwa, what?’ Simon asked.
‘Nongqawuse.’ Jacob repeated the strange name ‘She was a great prophetess; and when she went to the river one day, three ancestors appeared to her and told her that a day would come when the ancestors would send a great wind from the sea which would sweep all the white settlers out of this land and into the sea. But before this could happen, the Xhosa would have to burn all their crops and kill all their cattle.’
‘Did the prophecy come true?’ Marta asked.
‘No dummy – look, we’re still here, aren’t we?’
‘Are we white settlers?’
‘No,’ Mother put her arm around Marta, ‘we are missionaries – it is a very different thing.’
‘Well, then it isn’t a true story, is it?’ Marta asked.
Jacob did not know how to answer. He liked Solomon and Bosman’s stories.
Father answered for him. ‘It is a true story, and a sad one. It happened after one of the big frontier wars when the Xhosa were feeling hemmed in by the British settlers, who were taking more and more land. And their cattle were dying of lung-sickness but this movement – the cattle killing – caused terrible suffering for the people – many, so many, died. The prophetess was later imprisoned for it. Little is known about her, but she may have been a war-orphan herself.’
‘Well, Solomon and Bosman’s grandfather actually saw all that happen!’ Jacob was not quite ready to give up on the drama of his story.
But Mother was packing up now, ‘Time for bed,’ she said. And they all went home, grateful for their bed and the warm soup Mother had left waiting for them in the Aga.
When Marta repeated this, Ishmael listened to her story with wide and staring eyes. Then he had run away, yelling, ‘It’s not true, it’s not true!’
But later he was back: ‘Will you show me, then?’ he demanded.
‘One day I will show you.’ But she knew she had answered like her parents answered. How could she possibly show him the sea? She did not even know where it was.
‘What will you do at the sea?’
‘I will drive my wickedness into it – give it back to the ancestors.’
‘I will find a way.’ She knew he would, too.
After Ishmael arrived, Marta no longer cared that she was too young to go to school with the others. She was glad when they left and she could slip out, calling to her mother that she was going out to play. She ignored her mother’s worried look as she left home behind and ran into the forest where Ishmael would be waiting for her. They played every day, till the others came home.
Marta tried once to bring him into a game with Simon and Ruth, but Ishmael had not understood the game – or pretended not to understand – and made off, calling obscenities at them all. Mother heard those obscenities and tried again to banish Ishmael but Father had insisted that it was their Christian duty to ‘embrace the child’ and bring him to God through love. For, while Ellie and Solomon belonged to Farleigh Mission Church, they had been too old to come to services and had been embarrassed by their grandson. So Ishmael had never been to church.
‘Is he even christened?’ Mother asked in horror.
Father replied. ‘You know I christened him, the night he was born and everyone thought he might die.’
One Sunday, Ishmael was to be brought to God. Father always said the grace of God shone particularly bright on Sundays. And somehow, for as long as Marta could remember, even when they were grey or rainy, Sundays had been brighter than other days: they started with sung grace at breakfast; everyone dressed in their Sunday best, looking kinder and better than they did on other days. After breakfast, Jacob and Marta went round to Narina’s house to escort Ishmael and his mother to church that day.
Simon went with Father to lay out the hymn books and ring the bell, Ruth to prepare the old harmonium for her opening hymn. It was already playing when Marta and Jacob returned with Ishmael and Narina. Ishmael was as jumpy as he had been at the hospital.
‘What is it?’ Marta whispered to him.
‘This house of God,’ he asked, ‘do the ancestors live there?’
‘No, silly,’ she laughed.
He was a little calmer after that and did not seem to notice the curiosity he aroused as people greeted Narina but looked only at him. Finally Mother ushered Narina and her whole flock of children in so that people would stop staring.
Throughout the service Ishmael was restless and fidgety on the hard wooden bench. Marta, sitting next to him, was aware of her father’s anxious glances and her mother’s frown. She watched Narina twist a handkerchief in her hands, entirely unable to look up. Ishmael squirmed.
Finally it was time for the sermon and all the children trooped out with Mother and Mieta for Sunday school instead. Bomani came over to Simon and Marta.
‘This is Ishmael. Narina’s son,’ Simon answered.
‘Is he the . . .’
But his mother did not let Bomani finish the question.
‘Come, children, let us first sing ‘What a Friend’ and then we will have the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert.’
Ishmael sat up at once and did not take his eyes off Mieta all through the reading of the story but Marta did not think he had been brought any closer to God, because after a while he went back to looking out of the window. And afterwards, he could not or would not answer any of the questions, muttering to Marta, ‘There is no angel watching Ma and me – we only have angry ancestors.’
The children went back into the main church for the closing prayers. And that’s when it happened. Father was praying the usual prayer, remembering all the recently dead of the mission. Ishmael was instantly restless again and when Father mentioned his grandmother, he shot up off the seat and out the door before anyone else could react.
Marta ran out after him because Narina had only stood stock still, staring in fright at the other parishioners who opened their eyes at the disturbance. Father prayed on and they bowed their heads again.
Marta was barely out of the door before she called out, but Ishmael ran on. He ran through the gate which led to the river; that was forbidden, she knew. But she felt so confused by the failure of the grace of God to shine on Ishmael that she ran on with him. Finally she found him. When she stood before him, he said, ‘Let’s go and find the sea today.’
Whether it was because the stories of the desert always made her feel like one ought to do big and brave things, or whether it was because of all the looks Ishmael had had to endure during the service, Marta did not know why she disobeyed her parents that day, but she did.
Jacob had told her that the river went to the sea, so she led the way to the river and walked along it. They walked quickly and surely at first, but they gradually tired and there was still no sign of the sea.
The day grew long and the sun grew dim. Clouds were drawing in and mist was rising from the river. Marta shivered and wanted to go home, but Ishmael would not give in so easily. Finally he agreed to rest. They sat with their back against a willow tree and Marta stared mournfully down at her dress, which was not only muddy, but ripped in two places. Ishmael tried to help her wash the stains in the river but they only made it worse and got thoroughly wet.
‘How much further to the sea?’ Ishmael asked to distract her.
‘I don’t know, we’re lost,’ she answered and began to cry.
This time he made no jokes about the birds laughing at her, but looked uncertainly at the closing mist. They huddled together amongst the roots of the tree.
It was there that Father, Joseph and Jacob finally found them. Jacob had remembered Marta asking about the sea for Ishmael and known they would follow the river. They had walked along it calling and peering anxiously into the swirling water, afraid of spotting two small bodies. So at first it was pure relief when they had been found. The children were both gathered up into blankets and brought home, where they were given soup and a warm bath.
But in the morning Mother explained that Ishmael had been banned – ‘at least for a while,’ until Marta learned that she still had to obey her parents and not do dangerous and stupid things.
Shaken as she was, Marta clung for a while to mother’s radiant Sunday world and did her best to forget Ishmael. However, Ishmael had lurked around the edges of the garden, had called and whistled from the trees. He left honey flowers, fire lilies, wood daisies and evening flowers on the door step. But Marta was closely watched and she would not go out to play with him, afraid of what she had done.
Then one morning she saw a red orchid disa on her windowsill. She went to the window and he was there, crouching beneath it. He was holding something out to her, twirling it to catch the light: a feather. It was green and blue, but as he turned it, the end glowed red.
‘What is it?’ she asked before she could stop herself.
‘A loerie feather.’
And she had forgiven him and begged to play with him again. She took the disa to her mother, saying that Ishmael had brought it. That, and Christian duty, won her over.
He took her to a loerie nest and they watched quietly all morning till the birds came low enough for her to see their green faces, their crowns and their bright eyes, with the red rings and white lines, which made them look like Egyptian kings.
She soon forgot her mother’s warnings and how frightened she had been at the river. As the days passed they roamed further and further from home. They climbed the highest trees and fell down with some regularity. And they did not obey the instruction to remain near the garden. So, her parents forbade her to play with Ishmael again and Narina began to look anxious and frightened every day.
‘What is it, Narina?’ she had asked.
‘It is Ishmael,’ she had answered. ‘He will not even get up in the mornings.’
Her mother would go and talk to him and he would play remorseful and cry and bang his head against the door until she felt sorry for him. And then, for a while, Ishmael would be good, would play quietly till her parents relented and said they could play together again.
Nothing could keep Marta from him. He would call for her with his strange wild cry from the edge of the forest and she would leave whatever she was doing and find him. She listened for Ishmael all the time and always answered his cry.
But in the afternoons, after that Sunday when he should have come to God, he always disappeared, melted into the forest when her brothers and sister came home from school. And he remained always in the dappled world of the forest, and refused the brightness of Sundays, even when he sat in church next to his mother, still as a stone.