Angel on the Line

South Africa 1959

They took some nerves from the side of her head. Drip. Drip. Drip-drop, drip. Keep the beat; it keeps a beat. Washing dark black feet, the whitest of white teeth, the hospital workers in tune with the beat. The sink faucet in the old farmhouse outside Jo-berg, that primal African gait seeping. One bath, water heated in pans, all five children taking turns. Running, yelling, beating. Drip, drip, drip-drop, drip. Her eldest, but eight, knows they’ll got to the orphanage if she dies. The smell of the veld, the flies landing on their legs and arms. And so far from here Celt silos being hit with rain. We are all connected. Fairbairns and Armstrongs gone colonial like spreading ice on a winter pond, looking for opportunity to cover this open earth. The girls first, then the boys, then fresh water for him. How they manage to balance the cloth and the food in perfect harmony; she too presumes this graceful gait.

She finds his white work shirt sitting on her side of the bed after getting the children tucked in. Without thinking she picks it up and begins to fold with hospital corner precision.

No, he says. Look at the neck. The ring of dirt around the collar; the other men don’t have this on their work shirts.

He stares at her.

She apologizes and assures him she will get it out but as she gets into bed she is fearful she doesn’t know a cleaner that will get it out. As she falls to sleep this is where her mind goes.

The next day she washes his shirts, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing but it won’t come out. She lets them soak with the new cleaner she’s bought and moves on to the linen. She washes so much linen her hands crack and bleed from chaf. After the sheets she tries her luck again. Up and down the washboard, pale and burning in the hot South African torch of summer. She has a maid but they are poor and this is what she’s to do. She works downtown at the makeup counter of Helena Rubenstein where people stop and tell her she is lovely—so fiery—and did you ever see such beautiful legs and eyes dazzling, but this is what she also does. She cannot get these stains out and he is going to be furious with her. Her red hair and alabaster color, even in this melted prairie.

She grips the spinning clothesline wheel where she’s hanging his shirts, the stain not completely out. Her hands are bleeding and her dread is building and she needs to wrap her hands so she doesn’t get blood on the laundry. Oh this is not what she thought when she came here across the ocean, no it is not. She grips the line and leans back, closing her eyes as she prays to god for a break. She needs a break.

For just that moment the sun catches her backward hanging face, her persimmon hair falling. Her stature, her willingness; it is known. Her eldest daughter home from school sees her mother from the side of the house where’s she’s coming out to help. She stops in the track of this rudimentary awakening. How angelic her mother is in this moment. A pale female Christ hanging on the laundry line, stigmata from her palms, how serene that smile before she topples backward.

She stays at the hospital three weeks. The doctors aren’t sure she will live during those weeks. Her eldest, but eight, learns gravitas in her gait during this wait. They don’t know if it is a stroke or palsy; she is so weak and they put a steel plate in her head. The right side of her face paralyzed permanently. The IV drips like the faucet and the clock, keeping her heartbeat. Drip, drip, drip-drop, drip. She knows that if she dies her children will end up orphans and so she cannot die. She is 36.