“Give and Take”
Give and Take
As if to emphasize loss and limitation, Riva’s name, meaning “from the sea”, was shortened to Ree, meaning “to bind”.
Her ancient female ancestors affected tides and raised storms. It took something within Ree—not a gene, notion, spirit, nor even a sense of self, but another life—to reawaken her.
At fifteen, she started tracing her genealogy, paying particular attention to the Rivas, who all had short lives, she realized. At sixteen, an unplanned pregnancy further intensified her interest in her foremothers, especially when an ultrasound revealed that the foetus was female.
Ree did not know who the father was. “You should be ashamed!” Angus, her father, rebuked her, “Falling pregnant at your age! Where’s your mind? I thought you were better than that.”
“We can have all your boyfriends tested for paternity,” he declared. “Besides, the father should have a say, and if he wants to go ahead with this, he can pay the medical bills.”
She shook her head and glared at Angus, “Not one of them has shown any concern for me, or the baby. I’m done with men.”
Agatha, her mother, objected, “They’re just boys. This could make a man of one of them—”
She suddenly, vividly, recalled the failure of her first pregnancy at full term. Family, friends, and medical professionals advised her against trying again, but she went ahead and gave birth to Ree. She had watched Ree change over the years, becoming withdrawn and oppressed by her father’s plans for her.
“My child, whatever you choose to do, I will be there for you,” she calmly decided.
Angus reeled and stared at his wife in shock. “Do I not have a say?”
“You have a say,” Agatha responded. “But it might not affect what happens.”
Ree could not bring herself to have an abortion, even when the scan confirming the sex of the foetus, also indicated deformity. The legs were short and unseparated, and her arms were stubs like paddles.
“She’ll suffer in this life,” a counsellor said. “And your life as you know it will end. If either of you survive such a high-risk pregnancy.”
Ree dreamed of her child, every night, and felt a growing bond with her. The bond was not a ‘bind’.
She dreamt of swimming with her child through alternating currents of cold and warmth and a changing landscape of light and dark. Sometimes their surroundings seemed endless, fathomless, full of shadows, and soft on the skin. At other times they were caught up in enormous shoals of glittering, skittering fish. They dived deep and explored. There were dangers, but they were different to those on land; they did not intrude as consistently or descend as suddenly. Her baby’s deformity (described by the doctor as “undeveloped limbs”) became a strength, for she swam deftly with them. “Mama,” the baby chattered like a dolphin, “I’m a water baby. You’re a water mama. It’s always been who we are.”
When she dreamed, she felt happier and freer. It was when she was awake, trying to cooperate with others and come to terms with her environment, constricted by the norms and values of her culture, that she felt trapped, burdened, and depleted.
When Ree woke, she felt the baby move. She thought of her suspended in the amniotic fluid, swallowing it. And wondered how much the baby knew about the outside world, and hoped the fluid protected her, from its shame and judgement.
As her third trimester progressed, there was still no sign of rain. Angus claimed that the wine was better due to the drought, as the grapes were more concentrated in flavour. But there were fewer. He saw this as an opportunity to drink as much as he could and drank all day long. Inebriated, he cared less about his family’s future.
The river near their house was almost dry. There were water restrictions, and people weren’t allowed to water their gardens except with grey water, left over from washing, or collected from gutters. The drooping pot plants in Agatha’s garden seemed more offended by the soapy water than grateful for it. The white azaleas died, and other water-loving plants abdicated to indigenous roots and bulbs which could wait and recover after the first real storm.
Ree showered with a bucket that slid noisily around on the tiles at her feet, careful not to trip, as her belly obscured them. She walked, dripping, back to her bed and lay naked until she was dry again. Then she rubbed handfuls of aqueous cream into her skin, between her fingers and toes, and over her mouth, which felt as if it would crack if she smiled. For a minute, she felt fresh and moist, then merely weak and limp.
Late in her second trimester, she and Agatha went to Kirstenbosch on a scorching day. They strolled up the pebbled path to Lady Anne Barnard’s Bath beneath the fern trees. Agatha spoke of how she could claim that the baby was her “laat lammetjie” (late lamb) and how Ree could then return to school. Everything would be fine.
Agatha was afraid that the baby would die in utero or early infancy. She was prepared for it in a way she had not been for her own firstborn’s death. It struck her that history might repeat itself.
Suddenly, Ree knelt at the drain running from the bath under the ferns. It contained crisp, clear spring water. She crept forward under the railing and slipped into the pool. A small sign forbade visitors from entering.
Agatha cried, “Ree, that’s against the rules!”
“Ma, forget the rules!” Ree declared. “They’re human rules! Does water belong to them?” She disappeared beneath the surface which was broken by rings and bubbles and then became still. She stayed there for longer than humanly possible.
At thirty-two weeks, Ree dreamt that she and her child encountered other creatures like them, who were guides to aquamarine depths and immense stretches they had never been to before, remote and unsullied by pollution. When waking, it was difficult to open her eyes as they burned. She was thirsty and dry. As Ree stood, her legs ached as if they could not bear her weight, and she sank to her knees. They had started to join, and were now only separate from the knees down. Her mother found her and, distressed, tried to lift her from the floor.
“Ma,” she murmured, “please take me to the river.”
“Why?” Agatha asked, remembering her miscarriage. She had also wanted to go to the water. “What’s happening, Ree?”
“Please take me to the river,” Ree repeated.
Agatha implored Angus to help her carry Ree to his old van. He had been drinking and so Agatha drove. “It’s no use,” Angus said from the back as she parked, “there is no river left.”
“There is,” Ree said, hauling herself from the passenger seat and shuffling painfully towards the bank.
“What’s she doing?” Angus asked, afraid and furious, but he remained where he was. “Do something, Aggie!”
Agatha helped her daughter to walk towards a puddle that reflected the bright blue sky. There, with understanding, she helped her lie down in the red mud of the riverbed.
Heavy clouds began to sweep over the mountain range, announced by a distant rumble, and the sound of the sea beyond the cliffs became amplified. Fat raindrops began to fall, followed by an unprecedented downpour. A gushing sound upriver warned that voluminous water was on its way. Angus called, anxiously waving.
Agatha tried to lift Ree, who resisted, and both women all of a sudden found themselves completely submerged in a splashing, swirling torrent.
Mustering all his power, Angus waded into the tumultuous river and pulled the women to the surface. They helped him back to the riverbank, where he lay gasping and spluttering.
Ree and Agatha sat on either side of him, looking at one another with astonishment. They had been under for longer than three minutes. Their cheeks were rosy, and their eyes sparkled. The rain subsided, and the river slowed to a trickle.
The following morning, Ree’s father had recovered enough to indulge in wine for breakfast. Ree tried to converse with him. “Daddy,” she said, manoeuvring her bulk between the chair and kitchen table so she could sit with him. “Why are you drinking?”
He laughed dryly, gesturing toward her form, “You’ve driven me to drink, my girl.”
“No, Daddy, you’re using my ‘disgrace’ as an excuse for your behaviour.”
Sadly, he observed, “You had so much potential. You were always clever, a cut above the rest. Now you are nothing special.”
“And you, Daddy?” she replied. “What are you? A drunk? Drowning your sorrows.”
“If I didn’t drown my sorrows, I’d end up drowning you,” he joked. Ree gazed back at him, disappointed and sympathetic. She knew that, had he wanted to, he could not drown her. He had risked his life to save her and her mother. Angus was sober enough to hear what he himself had said, and he recanted in his way. “Little Ree,” he stammered affectionately, “You were always a stranger to me. I tried my best with you. I gave you all I could.”
“Do I owe you?” Ree responded softly.
“I gave you all I could. It’s not all give-give-give from parent to child, little Ree. There’s give-and-take.”
“I see your point,” Ree conceded, “and yes, I have experienced this. But perhaps it’s not as straightforward as you think. It’s not all material, for one thing.”
As her due date approached, Ree became increasingly restless until she could remain no longer. She asked her mother to drive her to the nearest beach. She could not walk: her legs were a tail, and her feet were flippers. Her skin was waterproof like a seal’s or seabird’s, but it was not furry or feathery; it was, delicately and brightly coloured, like coral. As Agatha pulled up near the sea, Ree’s water broke. She rolled across the beach and plunged into the surf. Agatha stood staring out to sea, until buried to her ankles by the beach sand. Returning home, she saw that the banks of the river were washed away. The rain was incessant, drenching, and life-restoring.
Annually, Agatha and Ree met at the water’s edge. Ree always asked after her father, inviting him to see her, and her child, who was a beautiful specimen—less human than Ree, but even more wonderful, her grandmother thought.
“If only I’d had your courage,” Agatha said. “Your older sister might have lived.”
Ree smiled kindly, “Our ancestors never forgot. They clearly recall how the daughters of the sea married the sons of the earth. We could not be sea animals and exist as humans on the land. But we can be human and exist within the sea. Does this make sense to you, Ma?” If her long-forgotten female relatives had returned to the sea, they would have realized who they were; but eventually they believed they were Homo sapiens, meaning “wise men”.
She gave her mother a gift for Angus, explaining, “Daddy once spoke about how I owed him something.” Agatha had no heart to tell Ree that her father would never make peace with what had occurred. He died without seeing his only child and grandchild, within their element, but cradled the pearl in his hand.
Once her husband’s estate was settled, Agatha left home. She sprang directly into the sea with a cry of delight. She had been dreaming for years about her daughter, Ree, and her granddaughter, Riva, and transformed. Her long, white hair spread out behind her as she belly-stroked beyond the breakers, where Ree, Riva, and others like them welcomed her, breaching like whales.
Rachel Ferriman’s parents loved literature and poetry and nurtured her with the written word. They encouraged her writing and provided a strong foundation of self-belief coupled with a belief in the power of art. At the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg, Rachel received an excellent education, with English as one of her favourite subjects. A highlight of high school for her, was winning a school poetry competition, judged by Lionel Abrahams, when she was in Grade 11. As an adolescent, she wrote three books (unpublished), spending every Sunday at her typewriter. In 2001, she obtained her BA (Fine Arts) degree at Wits University, where her studies included three years of Social Anthropology and a year of Word Power: Understanding the Roots of English. Rachel is a ghostwriter for an online company, writing short books for customers who cannot write themselves for a variety of reasons. She was inspired to start writing short stories after listening to the wonderful podcast ‘LeVar Burton Reads’.