Patience, Ola and the Eye
On the edge of an ancient desert lived a woman called Ola. She had only one arm and only one eye and always wore long yellow dresses with stripes or spots or flowers on them. She had been given a beautiful green glass eye that protected her from evil and a smooth pale plastic arm to use in the place of those she had lost. In the early mornings she would stand on the steps of her house and look out over the rocks and the sand and she would sigh. In those quiet moments, she was as beautiful and as lonely as the sunrise.
She lived with her daughter in a blue house on the last ridge of the last koppie before the desert. The house was cool and dark inside, a heady sanctuary from the heat. They had goats and many chickens and grew butternut along the edge of their home. There was not very much grass on that last koppie but goats seem always to find something and sometimes people would visit from the city and bring bales of grass with them. The people always said how beautiful it was in the blue house but they never stayed for long. The woman’s daughter was called Patience and she was too young to help with the goats but she looked after the chickens, she would see her mother standing in the early morning when she fed them and she would hear her sigh.
Patience’s father was a hunter, he worked on the other edge of the desert, hunting Hai-uri. The Hai-uri are half people, one leg and one arm and half a nose and half a mouth and they eat children. Many years ago he had been called by a small village near the sea to hunt a Bi-Blouk, the female Hai-uri, the villagers had seen walking in the dunes. He was a strong man and a quiet one. Tall with long legs and long arms that hung from broad shoulders, his greatest joy was to run fast and hard across the sand. He needed to be fast to catch the Hai-uri who could jump right over bushes and never had to run round them. His father had been a hunter too and in the low gravel planes between the sand dunes Patience’s father had learned his trade.
The Bi-Blouk are by far the most dangerous: they love the children they catch but their hunger overwhelms them and they eat the children anyway. Again and again if they are not stopped they will catch a child and hold it as it cries, smell the strange stale scent of its hair, open their mouths to breath in deeper and eventually sink rotting teeth into soft necks. They are evil but their love is real and they slowly go mad with grief as the years pass. They start hunting more and more wildly until they will walk thoughtlessly into a fire to try to get at their next child. The males can be scared off sometimes but neither ever try to hurt the fully grown.
Soon after arriving in the village Patience’s father had seen Ola walking alone in the dune belt and known that she could not be Bi-Blouk. He could not see that she had both legs beneath her yellow dress but she had been weaving slowly between small bushes not jumping and she did not have half a mouth. She was just a woman walking alone through the dunes and he fell in love with her.
He was a hunter, trapping and killing were all he knew so caught her and took her to the blue house on the hill. They lived there together and walked out in the desert together but when they had Patience, Ola could not walk out into the desert with him, it was too hot and Patience was too delicate. The hunter started leaving for longer and longer times and when he was home he would pace the floor impatiently, an almost trapped animal. Sometimes he would leave to go hunting and sometimes for no reason at all. He always took Ola’s green glass eye with him, he said it would stop her leaving while he was gone. He had not come home for nearly a full year now and Ola and Patience found they did not miss him but without the eye Ola did not feel safe alone in the desert and someone had to stay with Patience.
Sometimes Ola would call Patience to stand with her, she would lift her heavy plastic arm with its strange smooth plastic fingers to Patience’s shoulder and Ola would turn her head so that she could stare straight between her daughter’s eyes with her one eye. She would hold her daughters head with her one warm flesh hand and she would tell her how she loved her. Patience knew how Ola missed the desert, how she had been alone there but never lonely. Patience’s father had brought Ola to this cool house and then left to keep at his hunting, forgetting somehow that he had found her alone in the sand dunes and that, like him, she had loved the heat of them. The heat of her mother’s palm on her cheek was gentle as the winter sun and Patience knew that although the love would outlast the seasons, Ola was not happy in the blue house on the koppie.
One morning as Patience fed her chickens she smelt horror. Looking up she saw an old blue bakkie driving up the hill towards the house. The bakkie was the same colour as the house and inside it sat a woman and a wrapped-up baby, the bakkie looked tired and the woman looked hungry. The smell was foul, Patience could not imagine eating near it, either. As the woman got out of the car Patience saw that she was young but her movements were slow and stiff and her eyes were very old. Her cheeks where smooth except for two long raw grooves, one on either cheek where salty tears had eroded the flesh.
‘Does a woman with one eye and one arm live here?’ The young woman asked, ‘I think you are her daughter?’
Patience nodded but did not say anything. She would not open her mouth to let the smell further in. The young woman looked so tired that Patience felt the gentle wind was holding her up. She gestured inside. The young woman turned to get her baby, opening the passenger door but as she stooped to lift the bundle the wind changed and blew up stronger blowing the smell away from the house. The young woman stumbled. She fell next to the worn smooth tires and tried to get up but could not.
‘Mother!’ Patience called as she ran to help her. She knew that Ola was never far. ‘Mother! We have a visitor.’
It did not take long for Ola and Patience to carry the woman and the baby into the cool dark interior of the house. They brought her water and told her not to talk until she was rested. The baby whimpered but Patience rocked her and gave her a butternut piece to suck on. It seemed to please the little one and soon her whole small face had turned slightly orange. When the young woman saw her stained baby she laughed a strange little laugh. It was as though the young woman’s throat had forgotten the vibrations needed to make that sound, but her lips remembered. They unwrapped the baby from her blankets and rubbed both mother and child all over with cold wet clothes. Ola set up a bed for the two of them and they lay down together, bodies relaxing slowly. The two slept all that day and late into the night and as Patience moved softly around the house she could hear them breathing. It was comforting. The wind stayed strong from the dunes and the blew the smell into the mountains.
It was dark and the stars were out when the young woman woke up. Patience and her mother were sitting outside on their steps when they heard her footsteps on the floor behind them. Ola had taken off her plastic arm and the three were resting together against the house wall. Ola, Patience and the arm. The young woman sat down stiffly next to the arm and stretched out her legs. She told them her story.
The village she was from had called Patience’s father to hunt and kill a Hai-uri who was living in the dunes near them. He had arrived and started laying traps but for a long time had caught nothing. The village was small and did not have very much money but they paid him handsomely. Then one day a traveler had arrived and told the village that the hunter they had hired, had married a Bi-Blouk. The young woman looked at Ola’s plastic arm between them.
‘You,’ she said to Ola, ‘The traveler said that he had married you and that he would never be able to kill one of your family. Of course when they asked him about it the hunter said that you where no monster, that you had a daughter and you loved her. I believed him. You see I was living in the village that called him to hunt you and I remembered the wedding. That village is only a little closer to the sea than ours and I moved when my baby was going to be born. The hunter never came back there after he married you. Everyone with children was leaving. But I had not lived for long in my new village and they would not believe me either. They killed him, Ola. I am sorry.’
Ola was silent but there was a wash of grief in that very slightest letting go of breath. Patience found she liked this old/young woman, she liked the slow sound of her voice in the dark and her simple apology for something that had not been her fault. Patience did not feel sad about her father his absence had always been stronger than his presence. She felt that she ought to miss him, after all she loved him, but could not.
‘Is that why you have been crying so much?’ Patience asked. ‘Did you love my father?’
‘No.’ The reply was whispered, ‘Just after they killed the hunter there were more children taken. We did not see the Hai-Uri but someone heard them jumping. The whole village started packing. No one wanted to stay any longer. I took your father’s body in the back of my bakkie. They took all the money they had paid him and left his body out in the sun, I could not watch the birds eating him. I am not sure where to. I did not want to be with them. I thought someone should let you know, no one else was going to.’
The young woman leaned over the arm and held out her hand. ‘I found this in his pocket, over his heart. I thought you might want it back.’
There in the dark, shining in her palm, was the green glass eye.
They sat for a while in the dark and then Ola picked up her arm and reattached it. She helped the woman up and, telling Patience to listen out for the baby, they walked out to the bakkie. They drove off down the hill together, not talking with the smell so noisome about them, but listening.
When Patience woke up the next morning her mother had gone. She had taken her eye and disappeared into the sand and the rocks but the old-young woman and the baby were breathing in the house behind her and Patience did not feel alone. Sometimes in the evening she would see a long yellow dress walking towards them on the sand dunes. The last of the sun would shine on the blue house with the butternut plants and Ola would come home to visit them.