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Sheila Kohler

It was snowing, the big damp flakes falling quietly, strangely, on the dark fir trees, when my sister first mentioned the name of the man who would kill her. We were in New Haven, Connecticut, in the new, tall apartment building, where my first baby was born. We were nineteen years old, my husband and I, and my sister, Maxine, who was twenty-one, had come to be with me for this birth. We watched the snow fall slowly from a ghostly sky and my baby suck on my breast, with equal wonder. Neither my sister nor I were used to new babies, or snow. 

We were born in South Africa. An alley of pale jacarandas lined the long driveway that led up to our square, creeper-covered house in Dunkeld, a suburb of Johannesburg. The thick walls and the closed shutters kept the rooms cool in the hot afternoons. The vast property, with its pools, orchards, vegetable garden, a tennis court, a nine-hole golf course, and acres of wild veld, stretched to the blue hills. 

An army of servants kept up the estate. Sometimes, gangs of convicts were brought in to dig and roll the lawns and weed the flower beds. I remember standing on a dusty path, holding my sister’s hand and staring at the men in their striped shirts and bare manacled feet, digging, with the evening light behind them. We listened to them as they sang in sad harmony, before we were taken by the hand and told not to stare.  

After boarding school, in 1958, the height of the apartheid period, I left the country. It was two years before Sharpeville, when the police fired into a crowd of running black people, shooting children, women, and men in the back. The peaceful crowd had been given no warning, had not been asked to disband.   

When questioned about the massacre and asked what he might have done differently, the policeman in charge, a Lieutenant Pienaar, said, “I’d get better ammunition next time.”   

I took the coward’s way out, leaving rather than going to jail. I married an American still in college, while my sister stayed on in South Africa studying anthropology at Cape Town University.

My earliest memories are of my sister. She was just there, leaning over me, hovering above me, her violet eyes dreamy, and yet curious and almost sad. I had the impression there was something sad about me, though she was not looking at me, but beyond me at the tick birds on the lawn, or at the alley of jacarandas, or at something unknown, incomprehensible, beyond my grasp. 

My sister and I were always together in the pale green nursery, where we slept with our nanny—the blackboard along one wall and along the other wall the three beds, each with a green bedspread, a wooden bedside cupboard, and a round, enamel chamber pot. We were together in the sun-filled breakfast room, where we had to swallow the thick porridge, the boiled mutton with caper sauce, the marmite sandwiches with the hot milk tea, which made us sweat; we were together in the corridor with the “Cries of London” prints on the wall, in the shadowy pantry with its pull-out bins for flour and corn and the big bags of oranges which perfumed the air, together in the light and shade of the garden.

We lay head-to-head in the sunlight at the side of the swimming pool, striped towels over our backs. We touched the tips of our pink tongues together and giggled uncontrollably. A bee stung one of us while we were touchingtongues, and our nanny told us that’s what happened to naughty girls.

Now my sister told me, her pale cheeks flushing, that she had met a handsome Afrikaner, a thoracic surgeon, who wanted to marry her.

“And what about James and Michael and Ian?” I asked. She laughed and reached out to stroke the fair fluff on my baby’s round head as the baby tugged away greedily at my breast.

At twenty-one, my sister was seriously considering several suitors: a good natured South African who owned a large banana farm with blue trees and many dogs in Natal; a distinguished Englishman, a member of the grenadier guards, the son of a friend of Mother’s who had spent the night after Maxine’s presentation to the Queen dancing with her, besotted; and a Scot, a slim, fair man who wanted to become an Anglican priest. She had told them she would make up her mind soon.  

My sister told me Mother was firmly opposed to this match with an Afrikaner. Mother’s ancestors came from England with the 1820 settlers, and his had been Boers. Since the bitter Anglo-Boer war at the start of the twentieth century, there remained great enmity between them. 

 I asked, “What’s he like?” 

She said, “He’s very frank. Says what he thinks. It’s refreshing. Know what I mean?” I nodded my head. We had both scoffed at the nice boys, all seemingly called Cecil or Montague, sons of Mother’s friends. Mother had little interest in our attempts to find a profession, meaningful work.  “What on earth would you want to work for?” she said. She expected us to marry someone nice and probably wealthy, and live in large houses with many servants, as she had done.  

I was seven and my sister nine, when our father died of a heart attack. Though he had left Mother a considerable fortune, she fired the nanny and most of the servants, sold the estate, and moved us into one room in a boarding house. I remember the nanny saying, “These children would be better off in an orphanage.” Mother had begun drinking heavily, if sporadically. Even when she was not drinking, we often felt she was exaggerating, dramatizing for effect. She seemed to see things distorted, or anyway muffled through an emotional haze.

Her opinions about different nationalities, races, and religions were particularly suspect: all Catholics were sly, deceitful, and probably given to some sort of sexual excess, particularly nuns shut in convents and probably the Pope who hoarded his millions in the Vatican in order to keep his people in poverty and ignorance. Boers were ignorant and emotional. They put sugar in their salads and committed incest on their isolated farms in the Free State.

I remember her summoning our Zulu servant John, a tall, strong man of great dignity, courage, and infinite tenderness who, though he could neither read nor write nor speak much English, set an example for us of good judgment, fairness, and great strength of character. Mother told him to clean up a malodorous cupboard. “Clean up this cupboard, John. It smells Zulu,” Mother said, and John bent down from his great height and cleaned it. 

Anything to do with the English royal family, on the contrary, had an almost sacred glow and particularly the Queen Mother, whom she idolized. Mother still referred to England as “home,” though her ancestors had left there more than a century earlier. 

My sister’s husband was respected in the Johannesburg community: an esteemed surgeon, a charming, handsome man—tall, blond, and athletic. His nurses adored him; his grateful patients spoke highly of his post-operative care, and his large family—several brothers and sisters, an intelligent mother of French Huguenot stock, a father who, though not wealthy, seemed distinguished—all looked up to him. Even our mother seemed mollified and moved into the cottage on the grounds of their house. She was always sending over tins of sweets and fruit salads for the children.

The babies, an embarrassment of riches, arrived rapidly in this rambling house, with its slippery floors and the many walls which they were always falling from and breaking open their heads. My sister loved babies, and her South African gynecologist encouraged her in this endeavor. “We need more white babies,” he would say. 

When my sister was killed, she had six children—one boy and five girls, the youngest barely three years old. I see their mother in all six of them, in the slight dip at the corner of their mouths, in the shy slope of their shoulders, in their light laughter, in the deep violet blue of their eyes.  

I see them as small children grouped together on the lawn like a chorus of Fra Angelico angels, with the white light behind their blond heads like halos, their round smooth faces uplifted, their blue eyes dreaming, the skin pink and white, their plum-dark mouths slightly open as if in song, a delicate dribble of milk in the corner of the baby’s, like a pearl. My sister stands in the midst of them, the baby on her hip. She is in her loose blue dress, her stomach swelling gently from her pregnancies, the veins in her legs blue, her skin dusted with fine freckles, her soft curls, paler, almost ashen. Somewhere in the background, the handsome doctor-father hovers, a dark shadow.  

On another of my sister’s visits to Connecticut, as we pushed my child’s stroller together along the edge of the park in the shade of the chestnut trees, my sister told me a story about a “friend.” Something terrible had happened to a young wife who was married to a doctor. We sat down on a bench and watched my child run to the sandpit and dig in the sand. As my sister spoke, her cheeks flushed and her eyes filled with tears. “What happened to your friend?” I asked, struck by her concern. 

The young woman had given a large party for her husband’s birthday, inviting all his family to attend, cooking for days. All the tannies and oompies and kinders had arrived from the Free State to stay in the big house. The night of the party was fine, the sky wild with stars.  In the midst of the festivities, she had suddenly noticed that her husband was missing and went in search of him.  She found him in the garden under a tree. Another young doctor was on his knees before him. It was clear what he was doing.  

“What would you have done?” my sister asked, turning to me, tears on her cheeks.

“Kicked them in the balls. Turned them out of the house!” I said, without thinking.

“But if I had made a scandal, both of them would have been thrown off the doctors’ rolls,” my sister said. I could only put my arms around her and hold her while she sobbed, as I realized what she was telling me. “He said it had no importance at all. I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said.

When I went home to visit, my sister often wore dark sunglasses. “Hay fever,” she would say. She explained away mysterious bruises with a laugh at her clumsiness, the children’s delicate skin, and the slippery floors.

But Mother maintained that her husband beat Maxine and the children, especially the boy and the eldest girl, to the point of unconsciousness. She said, “I’m afraid he’s going to kill her one day. He’ll shut her in the sauna or take her out sailing and drown her.”

I said, “Don’t exaggerate, Mother, for goodness sake.”

At one point my sister did confess that not only did her husband beat her and the children, but if she fought back, he would call in one of the servants to hold her down on the bed in order to have her entirely at his mercy, a particularly South African form of wife battering.

I begged my sister to leave her husband, but she shook her head and said I did not understand. It was impossible; he would never let her escape. He had the children’s passports, had her followed by a detective, and made sure she was always in the house for meals.  

“See a lawyer then,” I urged.  

“I can’t go. He has me followed or he follows me, and then he beats me,” she said.   

On a yearly visit to Johannesburg at Christmas, I drove into town and went to see a lawyer myself. The man said politely, “If your sister is unable to come to see me, I can’t see how she will be able to obtain a divorce. She’s the one who needs it, not you, after all.”

Many years later, when I questioned them, the children told me that they had once taken the eldest boy to a social worker and lifted his shirt to show the bloody stripes on his back. The youngest told me of standing one morning in the doorway of their bedroom and watching their father throw a glass at their mother, the blood trickling down her chin.    

I went to a private detective. If he was having her followed, I could do the same thing for her own protection. The detective looked as though he had stepped out of a movie in his tweed jacket and brown tie. He assured me, puffing on his cigarette, in the privacy of his office behind the pebbled glass door, that he’d had considerable experience in matters of this kind.  

“Really?” I said, surprised.

“Much more of this sort of thing goes on than you would think,” he maintained, reaching for the envelope opener to pare his nails.

“Oh,” I said.

“In my opinion, there is really only one way to handle a problem of this kind,” he said quite calmly. 

“And what is that?” I asked, eager for advice from this man who seemed to know what to do.

“For a certain amount of money the husband could be,”—he hesitated only a moment to remove a piece of tobacco from the end of his tongue—“rubbed out.”

“Rubbed out!” For a moment, I admit that I thought of it, the ease of it. I saw it, like a word being deleted from a page. Then I shook my head sadly and said I didn’t think my sister and I could live with something of that kind. We had not been brought up in that way.  

My sister and I decided to meet in Rome for a holiday. Her husband allowed her to go but without the children. Together we spent a blissful week in the spring, staying in a hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps, sight-seeing, shopping, sitting out in the cafes and talking, talking. She told me she had discovered her husband fondling one of her son’s friends in the bathing hut. The child’s parents had complained. 

I begged her, at least, if she felt unable to leave him, to lead her own life. “Seize the day,” I exhorted.  

She went on from Rome to Istanbul where she met a man who, she wrote to me, looked like David—Donatello’s and Michelangelo’s. When she returned home to the children, her husband found a letter from her lover. He cut his wrists and lay at the top of the stairs, calling all the children and the servants to come and watch him die. But he didn’t die, of course. She found him and rushed him to the clinic in Rosebank where he recovered, then came back home to tell the children their mother was a slut and to make remarks every time anyone ate Turkish delight. 

 My sister wrote to me and would make a joke of it all. “What else can I do?” she would say. “It’s a bit like a Restoration Comedy.” She bought a water gun, but her husband turned it on her instead. She called the lawyer one evening for help, but his wife said she was so sorry, he was in the bath.  

It was the way we were brought up. You were not supposed to complain. You were supposed to grin-and-bear-it, to get-on-with-the-job. We felt that, though no one said so in so many words. 

At the boarding school where we had been sent when I was ten and my sister twelve, we read only nineteenth century authors: Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Dickens, Wordsworth and Keats. The First World War was not taught because it was considered too recent to be taught objectively. We wore tunics that reached four inches above the knee, measured kneeling, and ties in winter with long-sleeved shirts. We walked in double file across the veld singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.” We spent much of our time, when we were not playing hockey or rounders, in chapel praying: “Blessed are the meek at heart.” We were taught to turn the other cheek. 

I often ask myself why the two of us were the way we were—so vulnerable, and yet unaware that it was necessary to protect ourselves and, above all, how to go about it. Why could we not speak up, speak out? Of course, it was still the lot of many women in those days. And I don’t think one can underestimate the place, the country, the kind of injustice which existed at all levels of society. Out there the white man was omnipotent. But then not everyone ended up the way she did.  

I have tried again and again to imagine her last moments.   

He led her by the hand from the party where they had spent her last evening dining and dancing with friends. They walked across the lawn to their car: the elegant surgeon, well dressed, accomplished; his wife, wearing a thin white dress, the skirt a little tight at the waist. She had gained weight, and her unruly curls fell over her face. She wore the pearl ring Mother had given her, which was how they identified the shattered body, the broken wrists and ankles.  

She stopped a moment to fix her high heeled shoe, where a stone had caught in the strap. She leaned on him. Her friend and hostess, Marie, was still standing at the door, watching them walk across the lawn, as she had watched them all through the evening. “He seemed in a bad mood, glowering at her as she danced,” Marie told me, “but he was often in a bad mood, hey? I put it down to the kind of work he had to do.”

My sister turned to wave good-bye. “I thought she was having a really good time,” Marie told me sadly, years later, when I questioned her. “How she loved to dance, loved music, books. She was reading Wide Sargasso Sea, that book by Jean Rhys. Do you think that could have had anything to do with it?”

For a moment my sister seemed to hesitate, standing in the ghostly light of the moon, as though she were considering going back to the party. But her husband said something that, from that distance and with the music still coming from the lounge, Marie could not hear. Perhaps he said, “Come on. I’m dead tired. I have to get up early tomorrow morning to operate.” So she just lifted her arm, waved good-bye, and they went on to where he had parked the silver convertible our mother had given them as a wedding present. It was the last time Marie saw her alive. 

My sister got into the car, and her husband sat beside her in the dark. She was about to buckle her belt, perhaps, fumbling for the slot to slip it into, but he put his hand on hers for a moment, as if to tell her not to bother with the thing. She glanced at him. We are not going far, after all, he may have said quite truthfully, and she would have nodded, leaning against the black leather seat. When they had gone a little way in the dark, he slipped his seat belt on and that’s what must have saved him, though it bruised his chest, one of the children told me afterward.

Perhaps, though he was thinking of it, he wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t said what she said in the dark of the car. He had been thinking of it for a while, or so his son told me later. He had found a gun at the back of his father’s closet and remains convinced his father was planning to kill the entire family. Probably she took advantage of the fact that, for once, her husband had his hands safely on the wheel and his eyes on the road, to tell him what she had told me, that she was planning to leave him, finally. Somewhere, despite all she had suffered at his hands, I imagine she still expected people to behave the way she would have behaved. Perhaps that was what aggravated him so, her continuing hopefulness. Probably she believed they were near enough to the house by then, that she was safe.    

It was a warm spring evening in October, what the Afrikaners call “die mooiste maand,” and the top was down and the radio playing loudly. Perhaps she asked him to turn down the music, because it would disturb the sleeping children. Or she sucked on her teeth in a way that annoyed him. Or perhaps he said something about the way she had been carrying on at the party, that she looked like a slut, dancing like that in her thin white dress. He was always telling her that he had put her up on a pedestal, and she had fallen from it into the dirt. 

Perhaps she turned to him with rage and said that she was going to leave him, or that she despised him. 

Or perhaps she said nothing at all. 

At the last minute, he must have swerved slightly away from the lamp post. Perhaps, had he swerved a little more, they might both have lived. It must be harder to do than you would think—killing yourself, I mean.  

When I arrived for my sister’s funeral, I drove straight to the morgue and asked to see her body.  I am not sure why I wanted to do such a thing. Perhaps it was because I could not really believe she was dead, or perhaps I wanted to be with her, near her in some way, to follow her even into death.    

They wheeled her body into the adjacent room behind glass, so that I could see her. I walked over and stood with my hands on the glass, my breath misting it. The body was completely wrapped, even the head. Only her small flower-face was visible, the lovely skin gray, the little chin thrust forward slightly, propped up, as though seeking the sun. 

I will see her like that all the days of my life. My eldest daughter is now the age of my sister when she was killed. I still find myself calling her name. “Maxine, Maxine” I call, as I jog around the park in the early winter mornings and lift my face to the snow.