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Excerpt from Isabella

Excerpt from Isabella

November 20, 2010 8:10 amComments are Disabled

Note:  This is a chapter from Isabella, a novel based on a true story about a woman who survived an apartheid-era marriage, a shipwreck, travel to a faraway land, and reunification with her Russian benefactors 25 years later.  It is not yet completed.

The woman sweeps her arms against the current, feeling the wind whip at her washed worn hair.  Her mouth is parched and her feet are shriveled.  She clings to a knotted board, perhaps a broken door, as the waves sweep her away from where she think the shore is tucked, somewhere in the unknown.  This was supposed to be the third day at sea, and the first day on land.  Instead, it is their third day without any food or water, without the comfort of earth or life.  She feels the waves close around her and she knows that their fate rests with a higher power.  She watches the sky, and listens for the drone of a chopper or the tack of a merchant ship, but there is no answer.

She has, when she is dry, smooth black hair to match her eyes.  Her lips are full and her skin is soft and darkened from the sun.  In the brine of the sea, her clothes have become remnants of their former uplifting beauty, clothes that would have made her mother cry upon her return.  Her round breasts float exposed on the ocean surface as the salt has eaten her straps.  She can feel the stinging of the salt against her scarred back.

Floating with her on the waves is her husband.  He is still alive.  Clinging to the splinters of their ship, they struggle as the wind and the waves beat on.  In the beginning, when they began their wayward journey out to sea, they found time to talk to each other, to soothe the pain of isolation.  They found love with their voices, and comfort.  But in time the voices became raspy and unfamiliar.  They lost their thirst and lust, and only reminded each of their failing strength.  It became difficult for her to listen to her husband dying so close, but with so little she could do but spare him the pain of listening to her die, also.  They float on harsh waves like driftwood, hoping for a rescue in these empty waters.


During each day at sea, she can only think about herself and her husband, about the world she knows but knows nothing about.  She thinks to herself what she is unable to speak: one must go mad to suffer the pain of silence so long.  The hours of the sunlight are long, and dusk is so desperately needed to save them from the heat.  But then, at night, the water is so cold and dark, and the dangers lurking in the unknown depths beneath their feet terrify her.  She cannot sleep for fear of not waking up, for fear of letting her grip on her husband fail and losing him forever, for fear of missing the sight of land or a floating canteen or something to prolong their survival.  So she must think all the time, so much it drives her mad, to think about her life and love and triumph and failure, to think about the years wasted as a child and the years of potential destroyed as a woman and a coloured in this forsaken land.  These are the harsh years.  The whites have let the country burn in oppression and no one is safe.  The blacks take to the streets every day demanding change.  These are the bad years.  Millions chant for an end to the regime, for an end to whites.  More whites flee every day.  More coloureds feel their limited freedoms being challenged in the open.  In the heat of the war, some men lie in the darkness waiting for the end of this era, so they may rise up and take control.  It is the same old story under the storied African sun.  Soon all things will fall apart.


It is the fourth day alone at sea, at dawn.  Her husband is holding on to life.  His arm has been broken by a falling iron, and now hangs lifelessly in a useless sling.  She can feel his presence and can only sense his life.  She knows he cannot respond, but she whispers a word to him which is lapped up by the rippling tide:  “Olaf.”  He can hear her but cannot respond.  “Olaf, I think there is a boat.”  He hears her stroke in the water as she approaches him.  She has energy he can feel, energy in her breath and muscle pumping in the water.  She has not eaten for days but she musters her strength to pull herself upright in the water, so she can peek over the horizon and see what she fears to hope.  It is faint, but there is a sound on the wind, a deep blast of a horn and when she looks, she sees in the distance an outline of a small ship.  She does not have anything but her arms and her voice, spared these last two days for only the chance to use for one thing.  “Olaf, they have come to rescue us!”  She finds his head on the waves and lifts it to her own, to kiss him on the forehead and nose and mouth, to embrace him with her half naked body and to hold his own crippled self in her own.  “They found us!”  Her arms fly to the air and she builds a voice, like the mating call of a lark in the spring, she screams and waves her hands in the air.  She does not think the ship can hear her, and feels very lightheaded as her limited strength almost fails her.  She musters the strength to breath and scream once more, for her, for her husband, for her unborn children and for her mother and family waiting, perhaps this very moment, at the dock for their arrival.  And she screams again, “Help,” and sees the boat, perhaps, adjust its course, and hears once more the sound of the horn but cannot stay awake.  Her voice fails her, it cracks, and like the collapse of the hull of Pieter’s ship, her body limps, hearing for the last time the sound of the ocean wisps and the seagulls cackling.  She clutches for the darkness.


She does not dream but feels the time pass.  It is an eternity.  She can hear some voices but they are faint.  She feels the touch of cold water to her lips and sputters.  Someone is touching her legs and face and back and chest.  Someone is wrapping her feet.  Water is everywhere, floating between her and the air, raining down but never enclosing her.  When she awakens, she can hear only men, men everywhere in a drowning sea of voices.  She cannot understand their voices.  They smell like cigarettes and salt spray and fish.  She feels herself in a blanket on a scratchy cot or matte, like the ones she used to sleep with her brother in Baitanrivo during their escape from the war.  Her eyes only can see dim shadows but she forces herself to sit upright, attracting the attention of one man who quickly closes his shadow around her and yells something in a sharp tone.  The room which seemed so full of men suddenly evaporates, and she is being carried to somewhere else in strong arms.  Her benefactor deposits her on a softer cot, and she hears the door close.  He says something in a language she does not understand.

She can see his face now.  He has a short mustache protruding from below his nose bridge, and orange teeth.  He is wearing a sort of hat and a striped shirt, with a heavy yellow jacket like they wear in the firehouses.  He asks her something again, punctuating his point with a boney finger.  It is not English.

“English,” she says, surprised at the voracity of her own voice.  “You speak English?”

He motions that he does not understand.  “Anglisce?  Anglisce?”  He adjusts the blankets around her body and puts his finger to his dirty lips.  He leaves the cabin—she can see now that she is in a cabin with just him and a desk and a bed, and a portal looking out to sea—and she feels abandoned again.  He returns moments later with a limp fish in his hand, about the size of a dinner plate.  “Pejousta!”  He says, and thrusts the fish toward her.  “Pejousta!”

She does not realize until just now her massive, aching hunger, but the sight of the fish makes her stomach grumble audibly.  He sits down on the bed next to her, so she can feel the pressure of his weight, and starts to peel the scales of the fish with his hand.  Inside she can see the tender meat.  She knows from her childhood that the fish has been cooked, that it has been salted and prepared and is being handed to her as a gift.  She struggles to sit upright in the bed, and the unknown man produces some pillows for her support.  She takes the fish and starts to devour it, starting, as she learned long ago, at the head and working her teeth down the bone to avoid puncturing her mouth, and licks the scales clean.  She can feel her body thanking her for the rejuvenation, but also requesting her reprieve.  She has used too much energy for the day.  She collapses on the soft cushions of the bed and feels the warmth of the man’s hand mold the blankets around her body.  She knows this touch, and revels in the tender caress before she is devoured by darkness again.


She is awoken at dawn by a sudden jerk of the ship and instinctively reaches for Olaf beside her, but no one is there.  She panics and sits upright, and takes a moment to remember where she is.  She needs to find Olaf.  She realizes that she is wearing men’s clothes that drape her body awkwardly, and no undergarments.  Shoes have been carefully placed next to the bed, but these also fit too loosely and clunk as she rushes out of the cabin.  She finds herself in a hallway with a swinging lamp, and she toes the keel line to avoid losing her balance as she races down the ship.  She hears voices and follows them until she is in a spacious dining room filled with the odors of men and their loudness.  They all turn when she enters, and the sight of her in her oversized sea-clothes must seem quite comical, for they all burst into laughter before the incomprehensible din starts again.  She then sees the man who brought her the fish come out of the horde and approach her with a genuine, orange-toothed smile and motions for her to follow him.  “Olaf?” she asks, “Husband?  My husband, Olaf?  Man?  Tall?”

She hurries behind him desparate to find a word in English he understands, for it seems they are rushing back to her tiny cabin instead of to Olaf’s side.  He hurries her along the corridor.  Finally, they reach a new cabin and he pushes open the door, and Olaf is revealed, a tall, Belgian sailor overhanging the short, cramped bed.  He is asleep, but he has been cleaned and she can see his arm is now in a proper sling.  She rushes to his side and grasps his thick hair and kisses his neck as she embraces him.  He awakens and she can feel his breath on her neck.

“Isabella.  Darling, mon amour.”  He whispers like he did out at sea, but now he smells like he has been washed and he smiles, revealing his perfect teeth.

“Olaf, I was so worried.”  She kisses him again.  “We survived.  We survived.”  She can feel tears in her eyes and sniffles.  He is weak and cannot hold her the way she is holding him, but he, too, has a tear in his eye.

“Darling.  I am so sorry.  I am so sorry.”  His English is affected by a slight Belgian accent.  Because her own English has a heavier accent, she does not hear his most of the time but, right now, she notices every thing about him at once, and relishes in his healthy presence.

“Shhh, do not be sorry, do not be sorry.  You did nothing wrong.  Get some rest.  Get some rest.”  She strokes his hair.  “I am here now.”  She closes Olaf’s eyes and lets him fall asleep.  She kisses him on the forehead and rises.  She only now realizes the continual presence of the watchful sailor who has not left her side.  She sees him standing by the door, staring at the floor as if ashamed of witnessing such a personal moment.  He must be not yet thirty years old, but has aged on the sea.  “Thank you,” she says to him, and he looks up with lit eyes and smiles.  He understands her words.


Isabella sails onward with the ship while her husband recuperates below deck.  In the night she gets into bed beside him and caresses his rising chest as they both sleep.  Every day, she brings him fish and water and tea, taking care to wrap his forehead in a warm towel and massaging his shoulders and neck.  During the day, after she has fed him and put him to sleep, she goes top deck and explores the ship.  It is a fishing vessel with a crew of thirty, all young in age but aged beyond their years.  From the Cyrillic lettering all over, she knows she is on a Russian ship.  She discovers that her benefactor, a mate or officer, gave his cabin for her recovery, and when she started sleeping with her husband again he stopped sleeping in the hammocks with the crew.  He takes her all over the ship and proudly presents her to his crewmates, who warm up to her (she has since taken in her oversized clothes to avoid ridicule), and enthusiastically crowd her with questions she cannot understand.  She enjoys the company and the attention, and is acutely aware of her dark complexion and the Russian fascination with her exotic beauty.  They know of her husband, so she does not fear for her body.  She prides herself in her new clothes, as she made them with her own hand and washes them daily in the privacy of her husband’s new cabin.

She learns that her benefactor’s name is Petrov, and he is in charge of order on the vessel.  He does not man the fishing nets himself, but commands the labor and reports to the captain.  The captain is a gruff man much like Pieter, the doomed captain of her doomed ship, and she wonders if all ship captains are much alike.  The captain shows her a chart on the bridge, which shows the Cape as she has never seen it before, with fishing lines labeled and breeding grounds highlighted in various colors.  The lettering is in Cyrillic but through pronunciation lessons from Petrov she learns that the ship is headed for the port in Walvis Bay, where it will stop for five days, and then will turn around and head back to the Soviet Union for the winter, perhaps at Odessa.  She deduces from the course deviations on the chart that she and Olaf were picked up far south of Durban, being swept toward the Indian Ocean and south of Madagascar.  She points to Cape Town and to herself, and requests in this way that she and Olaf depart there after the stop in Namibia.  The captain graciously agrees.

She marvels at the generosity of the Russians, who have always seemed like an enemy to her and her adopted country.  The media of South Africa found every problem with the Soviet Union enticing and delicious, and jumped on every story, mocking its impending doom.  She sees the denunciation of the terrorist blacks on television and their communist tactics, she hears whispers from the whites of Mandela coming out of prison and starting a Marxist revolution.  And she knows communists, many of whom, back in Madagascar, forced her to leave home and start a new life.  But she has heard, from everywhere, that the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, and she believes that this eroding fishing boat is a symbol of the era.  She senses, from the demeanor of the sailors, that their pride is perhaps eroding as well, that their certainty in the future is shaken and they might believe that this is the last journey they will ever make for their country.

But these Russians are friendly, engaging, generous.  She wants to know them and talk to them, and find out about their food and vodka and homeland.  She is given a book by Petrov and she learns to read the letters, although they are difficult to understand at first with their similarities to Latin letters.  She learns some Russian words but cannot understand conversation.  The sailors show her pictures of their wives and girlfriends back home.  These beautiful Russian women from exotic places like Murmansk and Vladivostock and Irkutsk beckon to her, with their dark, soulful eyes and proud, thin bodies.  They are no younger than her, but await their mates halfway around the world in a foreign land.  One sailor shows her a picture of a little girl and points to his chest proudly.  He kisses the photograph and motions with his hand that she is this tall—then raises his hand to show she has grown since the photograph has been taken.  The amount of human experience that can be conveyed through simple hand gestures—the amount of commonality in the world and what little language is needed in the face of universal triumphs like love and children—overwhelms Isabella.  She thinks about her own new family and their path to one day have children, if the law one day allows.  And the thought of these families back in Russia makes her hope for the faster recovery of her husband, so she may lie beside him again and feel his touch and strength, and the world may be righted again.

Olaf recuperates his strength slowly but soon he is able to walk about the cabin.  She takes him up on deck before long, and he is excited to meet new people.  He has been a sailor, so he understands and explains to Isabella how the ship works, the mast and cast iron cranes, the nets and ropes and crew positions.  He does not talk to her about their wreck, or his pain, or his fears.  When they are on deck while the Russian sailors are working, he tries to offer his help to steady a rope or tie a line, but he is always friendlily pushed away.  He does not want to betray weakness to the other men on the ship, but at night when they are alone his body is limp with fatigue, and she must sometimes guide his feet out of his shoes and undress him for bed.


Then, one night when they were only three days from Walvis Bay, he awakens suddenly and sits up in the dark.

“Isabella!  I want to go up deck.”

“It is cold, darling, tomorrow we will go.”  She does not feel as if she has fallen asleep yet, but only has been rocking with the ship.

“I want to go now.”  He gets out of bed and puts on his shoes.  She follows him tirelessly, fascinated by his sudden energy.  He takes her hand and leads her up on deck, where the moonlit night reveals a field of speckled waves shimmering before them.  He takes her in his right, strong, arm and holds her close.  She knows the touch of his hand, but it has been so long since she felt it and her back shivers with anticipation.  He cannot use his left arm but strokes her back with his right, running his finger up her healing scar, discovering her body anew.  He then runs his hand up her back, naked underneath her sailor’s shirt, and up to her neck, where he rubs the wisps of hair on her neck to her convulsing shivers.  He then takes her hair in his hand and draws her face into his, and she feels the moonlight bathing her as their lips touch, and the deck and the ship and the sky melt away until only she and her love are alone in the universe.

“You do not know how much you mean to me,” he says in a deep, caressing voice, that rumbles her own vocal cords.  “I was on the ocean completely alone, and the only thing I have in the world is you, Isabella.”


“Stop, let me finish.  You care for me and I love you, mon amour.”  He spokes these last words in French, but she knew them well.

“Olaf you have always been my strength.  You believe in me and loved me when it was forbidden, when it is still forbidden.”

She takes his right hand in his and lowers it so it touches her breast, so her beating heart can be felt.  She wants him at that moment, and she takes his face in her hand and touches his mouth with her thumb, then runs her hand to his chest, so their chests are beating as one with shared energy.  This in Africa is the feeling of kinship, of Ubuntu, this is sacred energy.  She leads him below the deck and takes him to bed, and bestows on him the wonders of a wife, and discovers anew the hunger of a husband.

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