When I was eight I watched my mother prepare the chicken for Sunday’s roast. She lit a quill of paper, burned off the pin feathers and removed the gall, careful to keep it whole. Then she put her hand in the slimy carcass and pulled out giblets. That week, she drew out an egg yolk not yet sheathed in shell and saved the golden globe to poach in broth.
She was an excellent cook. The roast came out of the oven fragrant, juicy, and crisp. I assume Leila’s mother, Fareeda, had similar skills. When Leila was my tenant in Cambridge, a stranger alone in America, we sometimes cooked for each other. Although Leila was here to study science, she cooked traditional Cape dishes like my mother, not from recipes but recalling her ancestors’ methods and how dishes should taste.
In February, she danced out of the house light as a snowflake and a florist delivered red roses. But in late March, I heard her feet drag on the stairs and saw her walk to the bus head bent as though to read the filthy dregs of winter.
I guessed her lonely, stranded, and stunned by our snow, ice, and Yankee ways. Like me when I first came to New England. “What’s the matter? Are you coming down with ’flu?”
She wasn’t ready yet, but the third time I asked she said, “I’m pregnant.” Of course. It should have been obvious. Brad, older and something of a celebrity. Gospel music. She told me he said, “I’ve got no money,” and, “Get rid of it.”
But Leila was done with abortions. Certain from the first, she knew she’d conceived a girl, and retorted, “How dare you talk about my daughter that way?”
I said, “He’s got money. Look at his car.” A mustard Porsche.
We talked and after a while, I brought a pen and pad of lined paper to set in front of her and we wrote a list of questions. That calmed her.
She didn’t tell me she feared her brother might come to kill her for the family’s honor.
“I’ll introduce you to my parish priest. They make such a fuss about abortion, let’s see if they have any practical alternatives.”
In Father Tom’s small office, she said, “I’m an atheist.”
He waved that aside and didn’t have any practical advice but fifteen years later, she still talks about him.
• • •
Perhaps Olive also cooks well but the weekend they visited she made no move to help. She sat at my kitchen table her face hidden in a white hoodie while Leila cooked for us and I thought, “Perhaps she’s shy.” She doesn’t know me though she’s spoken rehearsed thank-yous for birthday gifts I sent.
Brad’s confidant said, “Take her to your own doctor,” and at the sonogram machine he heard his daughter’s heartbeat. His own heart’s echo. A pulse from God.
He stopped saying “Get rid of it,” but was not going to give up his career or lead a monogamous life with a Coloured wife from Cape Town. He’d been a celebrity for years and it suited him. When Leila started to show, he rented her an apartment in Gloucester—distant enough to keep her out of the way of concert halls, churches, universities, and acquaintances. The week Olive was born, he was performing on the West Coast.
Then he saw Olive asleep. She opened her newborn-blue eyes and I guess he heard angels singing or something like that. He gave Leila money she might need for Olive.
Leila’s brother, running a successful business in Cape Town, gave Fareeda airfare to America and I drove mother and child to the airport to meet her, a flabby woman who addressed me in Cape Coloured Afrikaans mixed with English. For three weeks she cooked dishes Leila had hankered for—bobotie, carrot bredie and yellow rice with raisins. She wanted guinea-fowl but I said, “It’s not sold in Massachusetts. Even mutton’s difficult, though we do get New Zealand lamb.” I mentioned chicken but Leila said, “Americans take out the taste and wrap what’s left in plastic.”
Three weeks ago, Leila called to tell me Fareeda died last month. She and Olive had just spent five weeks in Cape Town and found her ailing. She’d been complaining about her health for years and impatience tainted my sympathy until Leila’s voice broke at a sob. I invited them to visit the day after Thanksgiving. I used to seat twelve at my table, but I’m getting old now and am grateful to be invited to someone else’s feast.
Apartheid’s over, but the weekend they visit, I fear the imminent collapse of American democracy. Other empires have cracked and broken in my lifetime. It can seem very sudden, like our disarray after the election. I fear our vulnerable country could skid and crash while tantrums and anarchy govern. Our planet itself needs protection and I fear apocalyptic war.
• • •
While she cooks, Leila runs the faucet, a transparent pillar of water, and I hear the careless water flow like when I first arrived here. I left droughts that cake parched veldt, shrinking riverbeds, and cattle that wither into hide on corrugated bone. Suddenly, as though I’m alone, I can’t control myself, stand and reach for the faucet, “Sorry, Massachusetts is still recovering from this summer’s drought.”
Leila says, “Sorry.”
“I didn’t mean to be so abrupt.”
“I’ve been in Germany too long.”
She grew up in Cape Town where moist mountain flanks usually protect the city from the inland droughts I knew.
It didn’t take long for Brad to find Leila a jealous shrew. Wary of being tricked, he would not divorce his current wife to marry her. But, she told me, she had “a friend in Germany” and when Olive was still a toddler heaving herself up stairs one riser at a time, Leila took her there. In the event, the friend didn’t work out, but Leila found Germany more comfortable than the states and devoted her life to her daughter. I don’t know what else she did or whether she tried to get work in a lab there. She read novels and women’s magazines, and seemed to lose interest in polymer research.
She never mentioned friends in Germany and I have the impression her life there was lonely and narrow. When people took her for an Arab, she protested she came from Cape Town. Once, she told me her mother was “European,” the old South Africanism for white. Ten years ago, she asked me for a recommendation to a small college out west. I wrote, but she never mentioned it again. Her brother suggested she run a branch of his import-export business, but that didn’t work out either and she fell back to dedicating her life to her daughter.
Olive shone in classes at her international school and won prizes for ballet and piano playing, but I guess people didn’t know where to place them. Were they Arab? Neither German nor American, they didn’t fit in.
When I try to guess what Olive craves, I come to a chasm. What do girls her age long for today? Something ineffable, moody and heroic—running on an open beach? Climbing a panoramic cliff? Raising her hands from piano keys before the audience bursts into applause? A close friend? A lover? I cannot see her longings and her inner life is hiding like her face in her hoodie.