Kafka's Curse (Achmat Dangor)

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  Allison is gone. She is old enough, heaven knows, to take care of herself, Helena said and took a sip of coffee. She glanced up at Martin, who blinked and forced his eyes to swallow the fat tears swimming at their edges. Anna, please take care of Di for a while. You should stay here. But if you want, take Di to Oscar's house. We're going away for a while, Martin and I.

Between gulps of coffee that Annie brought her, Anna told the uncomprehending Helena and Martin of her dream during the night. Not her dream of Martin, or even of Oscar, but of a story that Oscar had told her once, when his tongue and his imagination had momentarily been freed from their architect's stricture.

You see, Anna said, he remembered his beginnings when he had a bit of wine. And told me the story of Leila and Majnoen. Now Majnoen is both a name and a madness. . . In Arabia, I think--where else would he set his beginnings?--there lived a beautiful princess named Leila whom everybody wanted to marry. That's what people want from princesses. Marriage . . .

But she fell in love with her father's gardener Majnoen, a gifted man, but strange. He talked to trees and whispered to flowers and could make things grow just by breathing on them. Of course, no princess could freely marry a gardener, so they agreed to run away. They were to meet in the forest which Majnoen knew like no one else, every tree, leaf and grassy path. Majnoen promised his beloved that he would wait for her, no matter what. But the inevitable happened. . . Leila's father the caliph found out about their intention to run away and because he could not live with the shame of his daughter going off with a common gardener, a mudfingers, he locked her up. And Majnoen waited, for days, for weeks, until the seasons changed, until the forest worried ahout him, his hunger and his thirst; and began to feed him. Sunshine and rain, and rich black earth, protected him from worms and woodborers and so forth. When at last Leila managed to escape and hurried to where she was to meet Majnoen, she found that he had become part of a tree . . . no . . . he had become a tree! Not an ugly old oak, but a beautiful and sensitive willow.

Finally Anna wiped her mouth and took Diana upstairs to wash and dress. Helena had only a momentary pang of regret, a vague worry about this crazy old aunt's ability to look after her daughter. But remembered that Anna was not that old, and that she had regained her smile. And she had a sense of humour.

How wise not to speak of our pain, Martin's pain in particular.

By the time Anna had packed and come downstairs, Helena and Martin were gone. She called a taxi and asked Annie to lock up the house.

And oh, your name is Anne, not Annie, Anna said to the bemused woman, who locked the door and watched the taxi leave the driveway, strangely unworried about her future.

They run away all the time, these people, she said to herself.

You're sure this is the right place? the taxi-driver asked Anna as he pulled up at the address she had given him.

Yes, she answered brusquely, though she too felt a little uncertain.

She paid the driver and waved him off as soon as he had removed their suitcases from the back of the car. His apprehension only added to her own. She stood on the pavement like someone who had returned after a long absence to surroundings she no longer recognised. Trees that she remembered as innocuous shrubs had changed their character, grown tall and intertwined their branches to hide the house from view. Even the wisteria creeper, an unimaginative plant which bloomed briefly, and dutifully, each spring, seemed to have clambered up pillats and guttering and colonised the roof. Most mysterious of all was the foliage draped around David's torso like some emperor's cloak. The statue's stone face had not lost its arrogant expression. At least that was familiar, as was the dry fountain and the magnolia tree.

Although it had appeared derelict at first glance, the garden was well tended. The grass had been cut recently and the path was free of invading weeds, the first signs of an abandoned property.

Diana clung to the gate, peering through the ornate metalwork. Come on, Auntie, we have to go in, she said in an insistent, almost Martin-like voice.

It was then that Anna saw Wilhelmina, their former domestic worker, seated in the magnolia's wide shade. Wilhelmina spoke to a man who lay on the grass, and he raised himself onto his elbows to look at Anna and Diana. His bare chest made Anna uncomfortable. Wilhelmina spoke quietly again, and the man rose, slowly put on his shirt, and walked towards the back of the house. Now Wilhelmina stood up and looked directly at Anna.

Anna stopped herself from calling out a delighted greeting.

So good to see a familiar face.

Wilhelmina's eyes were hard.

So, you're back, Anna imagined the woman saying, and silently began rehearsing her own response. A mixture of remorse--It was not easy for me to leave--and anger--Why do I have to justify myself to you?

This is still my house, Anna ended up saying in her mind.

Do you have a key, Auntie? Diana called out.

Yes, I have a key.

To Anna's relief, the key fitted the lock perfectly. The heavy gate swung back on rusty hinges. She dragged their suitcases into the garden and locked the gate behind her. Then she turned to Wilhelmina, determined to overcome the feeling that she, Anna, was an intruder.

A polite exchange took place between them.

When did you come back?

After the elections.

You've taken care of the place very nicely. Thank you.

They paused.

Wilhelmina and her husband Isaiah, the man Anna had just seen, had found the place deserted when they returned. The garden was wild, like the bushveld, overgrown with grass and thorntrees and weeds. They cleaned it up. They painted the back rooms, fixed the leaking taps and unblocked the drains. Rats had nested in the car abandoned in the garage, and so they put out poison.

They lived at the back and never used the front gate. They had never gone into the house or tried to open it--even though Wilhelmina had a key.

Now Wilhelmina offered that key to Anna. Anna smiled and revealed her own set of keys in the palm of her hand. Another shadow of antagonism passed between them.

Oh, I work in the city, Wilhelmina said. She would pay something. She would not reassume the role of servant, nor would she move out. She and Isaiah had done too much to rescue the back quarters from inevitable ruin. This was silently understood.

Anna mentally readied herself to enter the house. It seemed enclosed, like a crypt. It's those shutters which Oscar refused to remove. They belong to cold places, places not used to the sun. She would have them taken down immediately.

What awaited her inside? When she'd informed the police of her intention to return, they had warned her to expect the worst. After all, your husband lay dead there for many months oefore the neighbours called us. We traced his relatives, but they said there wasn't much left of the body to bury. It was as if it had crumbled to dust.

Anna unlocked the door and pushed it open. Holding Diana's hand she stepped into the gloom. Wilhelmina followed, curious to know what the house looked like after being closed up for so long.

The furniture was covered with a thick layer of dust that stirred and hung in the air when Anna touched the back of a chair or ran her fingers across the long wooden table in the dining-room. In what had once been the main bedroom, a tree had thrust up through the floor. Flowers sprouted in a profusion of colours from the dark, disinterred earth, green moss covered the walls.

The air had a sweet, damp smell, like the air in a forest.

It's not as bad as it looks, Anna said.

Hayi suka! You people are absolutely mad. It is time Mandela took over the country, Wilhelmina said.

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Excerpted from Kafka's Curse by Achmat Dangor. Copyright © 1999 by Achmat Dangor. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.