Gcobani – Be Joyful

The tall blond-haired man turned to embrace the woman standing by his side. His arm pulled her warm body into his and he briefly rested his face on the top of her head, softly kissing the curling tendrils of hair. Her eyes were wide with fear and tension.

“I must go now, Evie.” He kissed the tear-stained cheeks with a leaden heart. ” I’ll be back as soon as I can. “Kwhezi will watch over the farm and help you.” The old black servant standing further back nodded at the sound of his name. Hans mounted his horse and the little group rode out towards Paarl. She watched them until they were tiny specks on the horizon, then turned and entered the house.

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A Xhosa voice grew louder and more insistent, ringing through the house. Evelyn sighed and hurried to the kitchen.

“What’s the problem, Ernestine?” She addressed her daughter.” Why is he making so much noise?” The servant at the door refused to look her in the eye, tradition forcing him to keep his gaze on the floor.

“Danger, madam!” Fear made his voice crack. “They are coming tonight! You must get away. Go now! ” Ernestine translated the man’s staccato words for her mother, whose grasp of the language was limited to the instructions and reprimands of her daily life. Evelyn felt fear grip her heart, giving her body a physical jolt. Living on De Zoete Inval, the threat of attack from marauding natives was a constant of their lives. Now it was a reality.

“Tell him to wait for us. He’ll have to help us hide.” The man seemed to understand a little as he sank down on his haunches to wait near the door, muttering under his breath. The women ran through the house gathering supplies of food and clothes. Evelyn stopped at her dressing table, snatching up a photograph in a silver frame. A young man and woman smiled at the camera on their wedding day.

“Mama, come on!” Ernestine called. Wearily, Evelyn turned to the door. Ernestine must have sent the servant to saddle the horse, because he was waiting at the back door, the bridle in hand. He knelt to help Evelyn mount and then boosted Ernestine up behind her. Taking the bridle, he ran with the horse. They had travelled for an hour when he slowed and stopped on a ridge in the hills. The sun had almost set, its golden glow radiating across the sky, dropping into night.

“Why are we stopping?” Her body shook from fear and exertion, but she felt as if she had to keep moving or the danger would overwhelm her.

“We wait here tonight. Tomorrow we go to Paarl.” He helped her from the horse and she staggered to a nearby rock, settling herself uncomfortably on it’s hard, jagged surface. Ernestine brought a blanket and tried to make her more comfortable. Looking around, she realised that although they were on a ridge, they were hidden from view in the cleft of two rocks. Moving forward slightly, they could see the farmhouse in the distance. They watched, mesmerised as flames licked the night sky. Piercing ululations rent the air while the women clung to each other silently. The old servant sat a distance away.

The pains came in the early hours of the morning. Evelyn gritted her teeth and moaned softly. Overcome by exhaustion, the two women had briefly slept until Evelyn was jolted awake by the  crescendo of pain in her belly.

“Not now! Oh, please God. Not now!” She whimpered. Four little ones she had lost in the last eight years – two at birth and two before they had seen their third birthday. Her arms ached to hold her babe but fear clawed at her heart. Perhaps God wasn’t listening that day as each contraction reached a crescendo more painful than the last.Evelyn alternately sobbed and railed at fate and God, riding the waves of relentless pain.

When they realised that it would be impossible for Evelyn to travel in her condition, Ernestine made the servant build a good fire. Then she asked him to get water. Young as she was, she had attended her mother’s last two pregnancies with the help of a local midwife. This would be her first solo delivery,and fear gnawed at her gut. Why did it have to be now? According to their calculations, it was two weeks early. The baby could survive if it were strong and born at home. But here? How could it survive being born into this wild, deserted place? She pushed her thoughts aside, comforting and soothing her trembling mother. Lifting up her skirt, she tore the hem of her petticoat, making strips to tie off the umbilical cord.

Three hours later, as the sun rose, a thin wail greeted its arrival, growing louder and more insistent until replaced by faint snuffling noises. Eyes wide from shock and exhaustion, Evelyn nursed her tiny babe, stroking the downy cheek gently. They swaddled the child in the remains of Ernestine’s petticoat and a coat she had grabbed before leaving the house.

The servant crept closer to gaze at the babe in Evelyn’s arms. A smile lit up his lined, black face.

“Gcobani,” he murmured. “He must be called Gcobani because his coming makes us joyful even when we are sad. He will be strong and make his father proud.” Ernestine translated the words her mother didn’t understand, tears filling her eyes. She grasped the servant’s hands.

“Thank you, Khwezi. Thank you for your help. You have saved our precious little one. But now you must go and find the master. Bring him here because we cannot move yet.” The old man nodded, then turned and walked away. Ernestine turned back to her mother, tending her lovingly and watching her carefully. The day passed in slow agony as the women tried to keep the baby as quiet as possible, feeding him at regular intervals to prevent him from crying. Night fell, and they prepared for another night in the cold hills. Evelyn lay close to her mother, wrapping her arms around her and the baby, as if her body could protect them.

They arrived at sunrise. Hans felt his heart lurch as he saw the women curled together on the ground, dread rising like bile in his throat. But as he touched her, Evelyn stirred and he gathered her in his arms, crooning softly. “I’m here, Evie. I’m so sorry! I’m here now. You’re safe.”

The baby stirred and he reached out and cradled him close to his chest. Tears streaked his dusty face. Ernestine recounted how the servant had taken them to safety and told him what he had said at the birth of the little boy. Hans turned to the old servant standing a short distance away.

“We’ll call him Richard Gcobani,” he said. “Thank you Khwezi, for saving my family. Your family will always have a place on my farm.” He turned to Ernestine. “And you, my girl, are a midwife of note. You have found your calling.” Then he kissed her gently on each cheek.

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