In the middle of the desert, a nursery school of goats.
The sun has risen behind the Rooiberg and she is hopping up and down with fear, joy, biting on her lip and hoping that the Weet-Bix and coffee with Cremora (“it’s not inside, it’s on top!”) won’t take too long. African mornings are busy, especially on the farm, and they have work to do. She practises a few positions from karate class in the front of the only mirror in the house in the bathroom, before Dad starts making noises about four people in the family. They are sitting with bowls of porridge and Marmite in the kitchen, where the floors and walls are already breathing heat. She fills the two red bottles with lemon Lemos and water. And waits. For the little blonde shadow – her younger sister. The furry dreams and tonsillitis reach her throat from where she stands. And they are off!
Synchronised determined breathing and steps as they stride with purpose down the hill. To the goat kraal. Their little world, where they are in charge. Where no one says how much or too much, and they can talk about mousetraps and the moon and memory and muchness. They teach the baby goats about courtesyandkindness and judgementandintiative.
The goat kraal is a self-contained world, where mystery and magic walk in among the baby goats and the piles of droppings. It is that easy to become the ruler of your own world. Just the removing of a latch and the creak of a gate opening, and the outside worry of Mum and Dad and school and sticker albums, of not being full enough, or incomplete homework sums, vaporises faster that the morning chill. The way Mum tried to hug Dad and he pulled away. The way the two girls sometimes feel like there is something wrong with their family of four, deeply wrong in the way the family is laid, an incorrect equation – doesn’t matter in the goat kraal at all. It ceases to hold them in a grip of confusion. Just the two of them, faces up to the burning sun, surrounded by the goats.
They are the teachers. Story time lasts all day, and this desert nursery school runs for hours in the heat. The sister teachers hold the smaller babies against their chests to comfort them when their mothers leave, and hear their tiny teeth grinding and their hearts beating through the hairy skin. Some babies try to run after the slowly moving group of white bodies across the hills, but the older sister is faster. She sprints after them. When all the babies have calmed down they have a singing session, and today the story is “Lizzie Dripping and the Champion Leeks”. Then the sun becomes so strong that all the goats’ glassy eyes are scrunched up scorched. The girls retreat to have a nap in the corrugated shade, with sand and goat droppings sweeping into eyes and ears. The babies bleat. The two sisters make a vow never to let this happy-in-the-heart feeling disappear. Not to not allow anything to take away the invisible line of hope and knowing between them.
But something beyond the older sister’s understanding happens while they are resting. She sees a cloud of dust above her younger sister’s head. Almost like in The Wizard of Oz, where a house gets taken high into the sky and lands in a completely different world. But it’s not the house or goat kraal that disappears, it’s her younger sister’s face that changes. Her perfect child face becomes thinner and thinner, her eyes begin to look empty and frightened and tired, black marks engrave around them and holes in her cheeks begin to appear. Soon there is no joy left in her face.
The blood is pumping through the older sister looking on, skin prickled by the heat and this change. This cannot be real. She closes her eyes, counts to five, the way they are taught in school to calm down when something frightens them. Opens them again. But nothing is the same. The sky looks different; all she can see is the changing light and her changeling sister in front of her. She can’t touch her younger sister, she is too numb to walk towards her. Her heart is breaking and beating too fast, she must get to her sister, she must protect her. Her baby sister. Her shadow.
An evil spell. She thinks of all the stories she knows to find a cure for this terrible thing she sees in front of her. Screaming won’t help – no one will hear them out here where the sky has lost any trace of the sun and changed colour. Even though it feels as though a ghost is standing in front of her right now and not her best friend and little sister, she will reach out her hand and touch her. To bring her back.
She has to be strong. She takes a deep breath and touches this strange person, reaches her hand out and takes the weak fingers of her changeling sister. She thinks it might be the only way. The shaking hand moves closer. This changeling hand feels icy in the desert heat, and bony. Like a much older person. Maybe a spell has suddenly made her grow old? Or is she seeing into the future? But how could someone so happy and blonde and pretty become like this? The younger sister doesn’t speak, but pleadingly looks at her older sister. The older sister takes a deep breath and reaches out, takes hold of the cold, bony hand and holds it. It feels like a cold fish. But she keeps holding this hand. It is still her sister’s hand. The ghostlike face of her younger sister looks at her with dark eyes. She has to bring her sister back, the older sister thinks to herself.
But she wonders how. She sits down on the dust and the droppings and calls the goat babies closer; they seem as scared as she is. She and the goat babies try to form a circle around her baby sister. The baby goats bleat and it takes time to form an uneven circle, but the older sister manages to make one consisting of her and the goats in the dust. The older sister tells a story with a shaking voice. “Once upon a time, there was a girl called Lizzie Dripping, and she was famous for her lies.” The sky starts to lighten slowly, the young sister, who has been lying like a statue in the middle of the circle, moves. The small goats are starting to move out of the uneven formation. She turns to look at the older sister, whose heart turns over. A sigh. Her little sister is back. She looks blonde and small and round and confused again. She blinks, and rubs dust from her eyes.
“What happened?” The younger sister looks up, finally, with her own eyes. The spell lifted with the dark dusty wind.
“Dust storm. You got dust in your eyes. The wind was crazy.”
“It’s okay now.”
“Let’s go home.”
Goat babies get shaky hugs. The two sisters look at each other. Too much, how much, to say? Lock the kraal gate, run back to the house to be sprayed with the hose for ages, wasting precious water, before being allowed into the shower. The evening music spills over the hills from the house, into the nothing-darkness of the desert, and the two of them wait, for tomorrow.