by Silke Heiss



Gwen John's colour-copied Self-Portrait (in a red blouse) hangs in a glassless frame on the narrow strip of wall between the library and the bathroom. Ilse Grey has a private library, yes. An entire room (albeit small), lined with stacked shelves. The floor is covered with an oriental rug - a silent drama of spear-wielding, mounted warriors overcoming enemies. The design encourages the eye to move along with the current of conflict. To and fro in a battle of form and colour that nobody ever wins. With falcons, blue beasts and galloping deer.

Ilse Grey returns her gaze to the melancholic portrait of the Englishwoman. If her awe before the artist is spiced with a pinch of envy - to realise oneself so must be freedom – that envy is at the same time balanced by a disciplined humility. Ms Grey has the admirable ability to strike herself at the neck, as it were, in the rare moments of her own over-reaching. She manages a drop of the head - and with it, dropping all vanity - in a manner so delicate that it cannot be taken as anything other than a brief abstraction, possibly flavoured by the kind of diluted longing that society knows is only too typical of middle-aged, single, childless and not overly successful women.

The portrait gazes back at Ms Grey from its position of gentle, yet relentless, frankness. Here is a woman who knew herself. And here …

In the bathroom, Ilse Grey washes the day's exhaustion from her face and hands, without bothering to look into the mirror. Not that the oversight is unusual, for her. One might wish, however, that she become as absorbed by her own gaze as she is capable of losing herself in pictures and designs external to her body - designs which are void of her personal iris, the tunnel of her own darkness set in blue-green shrapnel, startlingly bright in any light. But then, if the eyes reflect the soul, as is commonly held, what do those flickering crystals tell the world? Self-examination might motion memories to spin like blades inside the old maid's heart.


Ilse Grey pours oil on the egg and presses the button that releases energy to the machine. The blender's ear-splitting scream is a sound to please no-one. But, not for the first time, she hears uncannily beneath the mechanics a manly hum, or chant, insisting on itself. Ilse Grey registers it without responding. It may be said that she absorbs the sound into the inner reaches of some unconscious trove which she may or may not possess. One would never know.

Still, she cannot deny the gathering of hums. As she pours her home-made dressing over the salad on the following day, sitting under her floral umbrella in the towel-sized garden, she stops again to listen. Far away, yet not too far at all, a man is singing deeply and she hears his muscles, or his soul, carry the sound beyond. Into her auricle. She picks up a sodden lettuce leaf between her square, handy fingers and admits, or comes to realise. Humiliation strikes her at the neck. The salad is drenched, or dead. The weed-eater's song continues in the far-off, yet not too distant distance.  

In time, the washing machine, the coffee-maker, the microwave oven, the computer and the electric mixer all reveal themselves as transmitters of the same godly, or ungodly, lung. A lungless lung - airless, unmirrored, and unanswered.


Nor does the song limit itself to Ms Grey's modest little townhouse and its immediate surrounds. The public library itself - Ms Grey's place of employ - becomes a chapel, as it were, of chant. Not that her colleagues and regulars notice any change in her, unless it be that she has lately grown a bit more languid. She is liked despite, perhaps even because of, her stubborn, slightly sour elusiveness, for she is calm, efficient, and sufficiently friendly. Indeed, she seems to smile more frequently these days. Could it be that some promise of fulfilment is touching upon poor, lonely Ms Grey's life? The colleagues wish it, surely for their sakes as much as for the short, not unhandsome aging woman on her own.

As for Ilse Grey, it is not that she is not equal to the peculiar disturbance which she is suffering. What cannot be explained belongs inside, in peace and quiet. She harbours what she hears; indeed, her harbour is so safe, so out of the way, that one might almost claim that she hears nothing at all.

She returns home in the evenings to boil two or three potatoes, consumed with bean salad and a deck of cucumber slices; stopping only on occasion at Gwen John's crimson blouse with its cameo brooch enclosing the throat in a velvet collar. Then Ms Grey might swallow something other than food.

She retires to her library, into her comfortable chair she has recently had re-upholstered, and chuckles good-naturedly while reading Antjie Krog: 'god hears me/ a free fucking woman.' Then she becomes thoughtful. If there were a witness, they might hear a sob; indeed, a graceless snort is produced by Ilse Grey in a moment of solitary grief, or perhaps only solitariness. But there is no witness; thus there is no memory either. Only an unconscious harbour, or trove of …


Ms Grey rises and goes into her tiny, square lounge. She dials. Foursixtwo, one eight, ninethree. It rings four times, then Tibbie answers.

"Why Ilse! How adorable of you to call. I've been thinking of you. Been meaning to phone. You know how it is. Hectic. How are you?"

"Mild to cool, with cloud. No rain in sight."

"Ha ha ha. But serious, Il. What's up?"

Ms Grey takes a breath.

"D'you remember, Tibs?" she breathes. She could weep for the cord strung like catgut between her sister's bosom and her own.

"What?" breathes Tibs most earnestly.

"That time I had tinnitus for a year?"

She bows her head towards the spirals of the telephone wire. Bows over the string that twists between her and ... Tibbie remembers.

"What?" says Ilse Grey, "What happened? Tell me what happened. I forgot."

There is a silence on the other end.

"Darling Ilse," replies Tibbie then. "I wish I could hold you now."

Ms Grey's hand trembles, that is to say, the receiver trembles so that her arm must tighten, her biceps turn to stone. A listening, vibrating stone, she would realise, had she the wherewithal to rejoice in the fact. But she does not. Has no companions. She is woman alone. She breathes again.



"I'm coming over on the weekend."

"It's far for you to drive."

"Doesn't matter. I'm coming."



Tibbie brings home-made fig jam, and a bouquet of bruised - though still glamorous because so huge - pink roses.

They walk through the square suburb on Saturday afternoon, and Tibbie picks blooming grasses from forlorn verges to create a charming meadow bunch, which she instals on the kitchen window sill in an empty rosemary bottle.

"You should grow rosemary in your garden, then you would have it fresh!" she lectures cheerily.

Then stares.

"I - " says Tibbie trying, "I - "

Ilse frowns. She lifts her hands, holds them helplessly before her. Tibbie takes them in her own and sighs.

"Paul has gone up to do a story on Zimbabwe. He wants to speak to the villagers," Tibbie tells the hands. Then raises her head, biting her full, chapped lips. "I - ," she says again, and shakes her head with its cropped, greying hair.

Ilse smells apples in the hair. She disengages her hands. She holds them patiently on her abdomen.

"He's risking his life. Audrey too as you know," continues Tibbie, staring again, turning the rosemary bottle. "Oh, I support them, I wouldn't want them doing anything else. But Il, I find myself asking. Must they expend themselves so?"

"They imitate their mother," observes Ms Grey, adding, "whose real name is - ."

And Tibbie bends her head in exactly the same manner as her sister.

They sit in the towel-sized garden.

"I could not live in a place this constrained," says Tibs.

"I am the town mouse," replies Ilse, adding wickedly, "You are the country cat."

"Hmph." Tibbie retracts her neck and so increases the duplicity of her chin.

Ilse sits forward, very straight, almost arrow-like, in her pose. Tibbie recognises in the sharp nose and chin and freckled skin a dreadful youthfulness, if not undoing. She loves her sister; the more for the way she is paying for her stubbornness. It is a drama which Tibbie has seen unfold over thirty, or more, years. Despite everything, it is the main drama in Tibbie's life. She would be ashamed to admit this, so she doesn't. But it forms the basis of her love.

"I've gone into another key," claims the educated sister, explaining further, "it's like the tinnitus again. But it's not bells this time. It's a man, or men, humming. Much lower."

Sharing the unmentionable dissipates its power. Will the singing stop now?

"Franciscan friars," suggests Tibbie impulsively, and then apologises.

"Rat-catcher," retorts Ilse.

They laugh regretfully at the empty Blanc Fumé bottle, which is pale with longing. Then almost cry, but only almost, staring at one another full of knowledge. Ilse-shrapnel and cool pools of imperturbable Tibbie-blue. Then embrace, one sinking down upon the lap of the other. Both strong-armed and sisterly. Then the moment is over and everything is tucked away again in significant glances, swaddled in the formal embrace when Tibbie departs, as she must.


Having had her tail pulled, her whiskers loosened, so to speak, by her sister's playful consciousness, her simple acceptance of all that moves through the older Ilse, the latter allows herself to be driven to the bathroom, where she squats on the pale green, hand-knitted cotton bathroom mat. A mat without beasts, or warriors too pre-occupied with each other to make stabs at her, too blue for her dark, private redness, too dry and eternal for her momentary rapture. And when, fit as a fiddle, Ms Grey gets up, she puts her fingers to her nose and breathes into the deepest recesses of her lungs. Possibly finds a sign. Then looks into the mirror and smiles. Or perhaps she does not. One would never know.

The memory was an error. It is not like the tinnitus at all. The low drone persists over weeks, holds out for months. It is perfectly bearable in its pitch, peculiar in its continuing alliance with household and garden appliances. When the petals dropped in droves from Tibbie's roses, Ilse the sister was prompted into remembering less obscurely, more glintingly …

She gathered the pink flakes and felt something again. It goes back very far, yet is at hand, close by. In those days, she becomes aware, she was called by something silver. Lying in the pool under the moon without her parents knowing, Ilse Grey replied, then, in the affirmative to the commanding call. In those days.

She discarded the flowers. All. Their stems clung together, on account of the thorns.


Then a small child, a boy with pitchblack hair, hands her an arrow of lavender over the counter. He does not smile, and nor does she. He seems to know he is an envoy, and she may not resist him. Around the corner, in the children's section, the vacuum cleaner aches over the floor.

The library closes at six o'clock. Ms Grey hurries home to a tin of peas prepared with salt and mint, and elbow noodles sighing and sweating under grated cheese. But the supper ritual does not protect her. The Delphiniums loom large in her mind's eye, in the same spot where the lavender sprig poked her consciousness. His garden - his parents' garden - had been large; illicitly large, of course, in hindsight. They hid behind the rock rose bush with its simple, papery petals, beside the blue Delphiniums and, in a later season, the crimson spice of carnations. Despite her abandonment to this flood of recall, Ms Grey still finds herself unable to articulate her first, and last, lover's name. It contained exotic intervals of vowels and consonants, forbidden fruit almost in their doubling.

The woman rises, goes to the plucked lavender wilting on the telephone table. Her fingers rub the florets. Slowly, Ms Grey destroys the lavender sprig. She dissolves it by means of -


He had … as if it was blue hair. Almost blue.

Ms Grey drops down into the sofa. From her lungs comes the sound of an unoiled door, long closed, opening. The sound travels between her breasts, which she now clasps. The buttons, the cotton, the blouse, the carnation-red –

Ms Grey puts one hand to her wrinkled forehead. She is letting air in at the entrance over her head.

Her breathing fuelled him. (Ms Grey feels her breathing, is even calmed by it.) She was alive and unbounded and so was he.

The lavender is a mess. It's blue dust seeds on her breasts.

Ilse tries to say his name. Then, 'Control yourself,' she commands, 'Order.' Obeys.

She sits still again, but enjoys mangling the blouse: rips a button and sucks it, closing her knowledge with her eyes, inhaling scent.

Scent or sent? Is there a border between blue and red? The Border. Defending a ground between himself and Ilse hanging in the sofa, stuttering or chuckling out of her closed, sucking mouth. Border as in bored. Bored as in drilled. Drilled as in -

It was a wild party in the end. She tried to be gentle or persuasive, but he had had too many joints and couldn't. So she stroked his arms and kissed his prickly cheeks so black by early morning.

Ms Grey pushes against her temples with her fingers. She is resigned. She knows. She pushes hard.

The party was fun.

When he got up, she laughed and was hanging. Onto him. They went together, she holding him, onto the stoep. She laughed ecstatically when he waved the blooming gun, felt his warm, young arm, the shoulders, his back. She heard him speak, his back hum-hummed where her ear was: Everyone had dope. Nobody has hope.


All of them laughed on the stoep in the colourless pre-dawn with dirty glasses about, and sand or ash under her bare feet. She didn't care.

Ilse Grey stops sucking the button. Listens to her choral laughter or the wall.

She heard it clap once from his head through his back. Held him, watched from her cool, till that moment still dancing, innards of blue and green, and the bullet hole of her pupil. He pulled her blouse and tore it. The stoep was a mess of them and red. He dissolved abruptly from above and so did she.

The button goes down her throat. She coughs, but it's too late, it is inside her chest.


When does she move to the kitchen? What does she put in? She herself could not tell. As the blender blares through chunks and lumps, stumbling over the indigestible rawness, so Ilse Grey moans in accompaniment. It is a duet of mechanical sobs, killing the one and relieving the other. The other being the valiant Ms Grey. She disposes of the broken, smoking blender in the outside bin.

An hour, or perhaps three, later, Ms Grey sufficiently composes herself to extract Andrew Marvell from between Marlowe and Milligan. Page sixty-six. It is marked with a blade of grass. She stands before Gwen John, who listens so attentively.

Thus all his fuel did unite
To make one fire high:
None ever burned so hot, so bright:
And, Ilse, that am I.

So we alone the happy rest,
Whilst all the world is poor,
And have within ourselves possessed
All Love's and Nature's store.

Perhaps the silent artist smiles. Or perhaps not. One would not be certain.

The librarian returns, of course, to her days, as she must, which remain underscored by the baritone drones resounding in some cellar, in which the soul's vegetables of yesteryear are found preserved. Stoned party laughter, giddiness. Not Hanging On. A Loyalty. Forever true, most naturally, is Ilse Grey to the enchantment of her splintered I.

(First appeared in The Southern African Short Story Review)


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