Drawing from a deep well

She arrived late that evening and said only what had to be said. She had lost her child. How, nobody knew; nobody asked. Elsie didn't volunteer.

Any instinctive feeling we may have had to reach out and perhaps touch an arm was withheld by the strict composure with which she approached us.

The only agitation was in a slightly tremnulous hand that vibrated her dress as she spoke. Then she disappeared into the African night leaving behind a stack of dirty dishes intended for her, but now distributed among the uninitiated who fumbled for soap and towels and felt foolishly helpless at meeting her grief.

Elsie did not appear next morning. It was taken for granted she would accept this reprieve from her duties.

She would still have been missed after lunch had her bright pink dress not splashed its presence through the apple trees that separated the lawn from the vegetable patch.

The color of the dress had nothing to do with any new buoyant mood. It was simply her uniform -- her 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. clothes -- that signified she belonged to this 1/2 acre property bounded by hedges on all four sides with her kiam (quarters) abutting the garage in one corner.

The pink dress was her mistress's choice, I guessed, being only a guest at this house where Elsie cooked meals, washed dishes, hung out the washing, polished the floors, made the beds, and found every excuse to chat over the hedge with Annie. (Annie was Mrs. Ferguson's "girl" -- she wore blue).

Relieved to see her, I unconsciously walked in the direction of the mounds of clods she was absent-mindedly smashing with the back of a hoe.

She must have suspected company was approaching for she turned aside and began to sing. It was nothing carefully selected. Just a few bars snatched at random, rather like a person walking down a dark alley who thinks that sudden singing will signal everyone he is not afraid.

The intention was probably much the same -- to be left alone. I suddenly found a reason to head off for a mulberry tree whose spreading shade was an invitation to sit and read. Elsie and I pretended we were oblivious of each other. And in a little while I genuinely think she was, because she became so unself- consciously absorbed in her singing. She sounded quite alone and very far away.

She could have been back in her tribal land where the women sing out loud and let the wind scatter their voices across the deep valleys.

At first, though, her song was deep, melancholy and barely audible, almost a low moan but too arresting to cause alarm.

It grew stronger and sweeter with repetition and I recognized a lullaby.

While my eyes scanned the pages of my book without comprehension my ears strained to catch the rise and fall of her song -- its gentle cadences drifting over the hedges of her prescribed territory and into the surrounding gardens.

I sneaked a quick look over my shoulder. She had not dropped the hoe, and her body tilted proudly back, and the vigor of the song and the heat of the sun made her face and arms glow and shine with perspiration.

She had half closed her eyes and somewhere from deep within her, a tremendous release, a mighty voice surged out with the force of a waterfall refreshed by new rain. It was a voice of pure joy, an inescapable exultation of finding something warm and meaningful that was silencing her grief. It said all was well.

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