Monday, December 17, 2012

Rough Draft: Chapter One

This morning after I dropped the kids off at school, the weight of the Newtown shooting tragedy hit me. Like everyone else, it had obviously upset me since Friday, but nothing like this. I tried to shake awful thoughts out of my head all day, feeling guilty that I couldn't bear to keep them in my mind and do something with them.

Obviously I am in awe of the people of Newtown, as I can't imagine the strength it is taking for anyone there to simply get out of bed and get dressed. I am also in awe of all of the educators who gracefully faced students today, and of all of the students who bravely sat in a place that, at least for now, has so much terror attached to it. 

But truthfully, I really can't process it all right now. It is all beyond words. So, uncourageously and hopefully not disrespectfully, I thought I'd hide in a fictional world tonight. I'm going to take a crack at a very rough draft of Chapter One of the book I have been dreaming I'll write. Somehow a pretend world seems much safer to me than the real world right now. 

*  *  * 

Chapter One


South Africa 
July 1993

Elsie hated the mornings when her mother woke up too sick to work, but a part of her loved them, too. When she heard the coughing, the spitting, the blood hit the bucket, she knew what it meant. 

This was one of those mornings. After Elsie fetched the water for her brothers, they noisily wrestled their way out of the room and gave her a minute alone inside. As she did every morning, Elsie rolled up their four dusty mats and folded their wool blankets. As she did on the mornings with the spit and the blood, she put on her finest dress. Elsie always thought it so ridiculous to wear that beautiful dress to Mrs. Vuuren's house. But that's how her mother wanted it, so that's how it went. 

In the taxi on the way out to Wynberg, Nyami sat in the front passenger seat. Most of the taxi drivers in Langa knew Nyami's condition and, respectfully, they would silently motion for her to sit up next to them, in the most comfortable of all of the uncomfortable seats. From the row behind, Elsie watched beads of sweat collect on her mother's lip. Every minute or so, when the taxi hit a bump in the dirt road, a drop of sweat dangled, then fell. The sweat made Elsie anxious, so instead, she watched her mother's eye, the right one, the only one she could see from where she was sitting. When Nyami blinked, Elsie's stomach ached even more, because Nyami's eye stayed closed for just long enough to tell even a perfect stranger that the woman was not well. 

Eventually, Elsie looked away. She knew her mother was getting worse and she didn't want to see it anymore. And so she looked ahead, out the cracked windshield to the route she knew by heart -- the narrow exit of the township, the crowded freeway, the ramp to Wynberg. With every sharp turn, Elsie fought to keep her slight frame in place. But with nothing to keep her steady, she always found herself leaning into the strong, sweaty side of a hefty woman sitting on either side of her. 

After the taxi dropped them and three other maids off about one mile from the Vuuren's estate, Nyami hobbled along, her frame three times the size of Elsie's, ranting about almost every person whose path had crossed her's in the last few days. Elsie walked gracefully next to her. Nyami's rants weren't directed at her only daughter, thank goodness, but rather, at the wider world of whoever, real or imagined, cared to listen. Elsie listened for half a mile, nodding slightly in deferential agreement. 

By the time the two turned down Plaas Boulevard and separated from the other maids, Elsie was focused more on her mother's heavy breathing than on her persistant rants. Elsie wished her mother would save all that energy for the long day ahead. But Elsie never spoke back to her mother. Very few people did. 

Once they reached the outer gate of the Vuuren estate, Nyami shooed Elsie away. As Elsie scurried into the [type?] bushes, Nyami wiped her brow, tried to flatten the front of her dress (despite that her figure was nowhere flat), and pressed the buzzer to alert the guard that she was there. By that time, Elsie was already too far away to hear the guard's response, or the gate screech open. As Nyami made her way down the long driveway, Elsie ducked around the brush, boosted herself up over the rod iron fence, and trekked through the eastern side of the estate towards the Vuuren's massive colonial. 

While Elsie hid and waited for her mother's signal, she memorized the colors, textures, and shapes of ten different species of flowers she had never seen before. She sniffed them and tried to commit each smell to memory, too.

About twenty minutes later, Nyami appeared on the patio off the east side sunroom. She looked frustrated as she waved Elsie into the house. With that, Elsie lifted her dress and sprinted across the lush green lawn, head down, shoulders hunched over as if it were raining. When she reached the french doors where her mother stood fidgeting, she gulped, partly because she was out of breath, but mostly because no matter how many times she had been there, she could never believe the sight of the Vuuren's east side sun room. 

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