“I think I might be an old-fashioned writer. People often comment that I'm a 19th-century writer. And I think maybe it's true. I think there are different ways to look at the world.”
On the north coast of Indonesia, just east of Lovina, the Lambert's built their villa near an old monastery which housed blind orphans. The French–English family moved to Singaraja five years ago, and their decision to relocate remained somewhat of an enigma. Mrs. Lambert, often described as something of a floating spirit, had since she had taken it upon herself to educate her son Leo and daughter Celine.
“We are fortunate enough to be impractical” she'd often say jestingly, in an attempt to justify her digressions when teaching. It therefore came as no surprise that her first born Leo, sharp as he was, seemed to lack basic algebraic skills, though at the age of twenty-one he'd mastered the art of antique restoration and ceramics. He soon developed an unmatched passion for mythology, and I arrived to find him persuading his mother to invest in a library, arguing it would benefit the community.
“There's no need for persuasion Leo,” Celine calmly interrupted. “I'm sure mother wouldn't refuse to turn one of the rooms into a library. We have plenty of space, besides, I'm not sure you'd be too happy sharing your books with the community.” She stealthily entered the living room serving tea from a sharp edged timber tray. She never failed to enter or leave unnoticed, while ensuring her speech as well as her presence remained limited to its utility. I would soon discover that these were among the many qualities Leo admired in his little sister. She alone understood the fragility of his pride and in this way they maintained a harmony unusual between siblings.
“Oh Nina! You've arrived,” Mrs. Lambert said, smiling as she introduced me to her children. Even from behind Leo was hard to miss. He sat poised on the sofa beside Mrs. Lambert, his shoulders broad, skin fair and his hair unusually dark. But he soon turned towards me, greeting me with a well rehearsed smile and steady eyes. He spoke flirtatiously, fiddling with his words as if to test my wit or disarm me with his charm. And had I not had a need, a weakness for seeking others approval I might not have noticed Celine, pretty as she was in her white silk dress laced at the corners of her shoulders. She hardly greeted me before inquiring, “Mom, I didn't know we were expecting a visitor?”
“Yes, I wanted to surprise you! You two remember Nina, right? You were inseparable as children.”
“Of course!” Leo replied laughing. “I must say it's nice to see you in a dress for a change. Come...I'll show you to your room.” As he continued, assisting me with my luggage, I thought: perhaps over the years Leo had grown accustomed to compensating for his sister's obnoxiousness.
Celine still had that strange ability to sum up a person in a matter of seconds, deciding whether or not they were worth her efforts. This was enough to make anyone want to know her, but next to Leo she seemed only a shadow of his brightness, and she gladly let him shine.
The guest room, decorated with rare ornaments and hard covered books, overlooked the ocean which turned grey at sunset. In that moment I set about overstaying my welcome: “I hope I didn't do anything to offend your sister,” I said nervously, but Leo just chuckled. “Ignore her,” he said, “she's just a little concerned”
“Concerned? What about?"
“Well...” he winked.
“What! That's ridiculous, I'm sure she knows we are just friends.”
“Yeah? For exactly how long this time, Nina...?”
He spoke with such certainty. Unfazed by the effect he may or may not have had, he simply skimmed through the hard covered books lined up on the shelves, grabbing an old encyclopaedia before leaving. Ever since we were young, Leo never cared much for my manners. He thought it cowardice to be kind and preferred not to entertain my poorly masked intentions.
But once he'd left, I saw Celine, sitting in her room across the hall from mine and I thought I might try to win her over. She sat quite comfortably with a large black spider on her arm before I interrupted:
“Hi Celine, I–I hope we didn't get off to the wrong start, I'm not sure if you remember me, you were quite young then...I must say, you grew up to be more serious than I expected. Is that a tarantula I see on your arm?!”
“It's a Euryplema spinicrus,” she replied quietly. “He's among the larger groups of spiders but...relatively small next to us.”
Strange, I thought, what a strange and serious girl. “You look startled,” she noticed. “I'll put him away. I’d appreciate it if you knocked next time.” She stood up and placed the spider in a large transparent container. And I couldn't help but notice the light in her room which entered undisturbed by her minimalism. She had no objects on display, no books on the shelves or shelves at all for that matter. The room was clean, crisp, and plain; each item with its own function. Her exotic spider seemed terribly exposed, though she didn't seem to mind. Nor was she bothered by the sudden silence which got me chattering anxiously, “The light is good in your room. I imagine Leo's is dark and cluttered,” I chuckled. “Is he still obsesed with old books and dusty furniture?”
“Well, Leo has the luxury for such indulgences, his mind is as clear as my room. I have a bad habit of thinking more often than necessary. It's an extravagance of mine I prefer not to entertain. Leo can switch his thoughts on and off just as he does his conscience. He's best left to his literature.”
She started pacing the room as if in search of something, opening all her drawers with a look of defeat. “You wouldn't happen to have seen an orange pair of scissors?” she asked nervously.
“No, I haven't. Are you okay? If you like I could go ask Leo.”
Hearing this she paused almost frightened and told me not to worry, “It's not important really," and for a moment she so distinctly resembled her father, well known for his brilliance but passed on before she could remember. I thought I might ask about him, but the sun was dimming in its remarkable way compelling us to take a walk.
The sea with its peculiar scent graced the shoreline and our feet and for a brief moment Celine had a change of heart. She walked me to the ruins of the old monastery where Leo held pottery classes for the orphans without sight. Here the local men ate dark mushrooms as the woman sat isolated under a tree collecting black stones gathered from the coast. The sun was still good, and Celine, mellowed with nostalgia, calmed my nerves with a story:
“Leo looks forward to these classes,” she began. “Most of the ceramics in the guest room are his. But there is one which stands out in its distortions and unusual beauty. It's shaped like a vase but not at all practical, with several open spaces and a tip too slender for a stem. At times, I use it as a candle holder. It illuminates the walls with elegant patterns. When mother first saw it she was convinced my brother had outdone himself, but Leo didn't make it. There was a young boy at the orphanage who was among Leo's best students. His name Noman and for a long time he and Leo were inseparable. They both had a certain wisdom about them. Noman gave the odd vase to Leo as a gift (a token of his appreciation) and ever since Leo has never found the heart to give light to Noman's craftsmanship. See his pride is like porcelain, and since Noman was born without possessions or sight he simply delighted in moulding the clay without a longing for praise.
"I've never met a boy with such grace. I thought perhaps my brother had found his match. They
were not at all alike but stood apart as equals. You see, Leo has always been bright and charming, he stands out like the sun. But Noman was like soil or grass, earthbound and subtle. He was among the few quiet enough to feel me come and go. We sat most afternoons near the ruins of the monastery weaving small grass baskets which the villagers filled with garden flowers, and at times I'd scratch his back and he'd place his head on my lap, where each day, I thought, Noman grew more beautiful – His skin brown and warm, his hair dark and wavy with tanned lips and well-crafted hands...his eyes caught the light like crystals and danced like Phaeceans under the mild sun. And, though I'm not one for words, they seemed a fair exchange for such a sight. So when he asked that I tell him the color of sunset or the fickle hours of mild heat and temperate winds, I said it was the orange time of day. Then gently he found my hand clenched moist in nervousness and squeezed his finger through to my palm, his face filled with mirth...and before the sun set, he placed his lips on the corner of my head ‘with a measured restraint’, but it was enough to change the weight of my thoughts, at least for the time being.
"Only I soon saw Leo, steadily fixing his eyes on me as if to say I’d betrayed him. I think Leo has always been unusually possessive for someone so easy to love. He's never understood that to me Noman simply had all the subtleties of artist. But Leo, he is like art itself. A silly thing to compare, really.”
“We'd better start walking back now,” she said stiffly, as if harshly shaken from deep sleep. "At this time of year the sunset is usually followed by rain.”
I arrived at the Villa to find Mrs. Lambert in the kitchen trying to ground water in the cup of her hand. It was an exercise I’d seen her do quite often when Celine was a child. “She’ll never get it right!” the child observed. “She clasps her hands too tightly.” Then quickly, quietly, before I could reply, she’d gone back to her room, perhaps so her mother would not see her, for once Mrs. Lambert caught sight of me, she asked that I help her glaze Leo's pottery. The glaze already prepared left me with the small task of dipping each pot into the mixture. Leo would later apply metallic salts to make his pots look golden. “They are a tribute to Benvenuto Cellini,” Mrs. Lambert said boastfully.
“The Gold Smith?” I inquired.
“Yes! but it's no surprise, really. Leo has always had a strange fascination with the man. A curious choice of an Idol, wouldn't you agree? Even with all his genius, Cellini was quite cruel. Evil, some might go so far as to say. Perhaps you could call it yin and yang. The same man that formed that statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa, fled seven cities charged with rape, murder and other kinds of absurdities...Yet he lived a long and glorious life, favored by the nobles, charged but never severely punished. And the cardinals, kings, ands popes only ever granted further commissions. Because in the end, Nina, the people simply want to be amused.” Mrs. Lambert always spoke in code, in warning, it unsetlled me in a manor I couldnt explain. “Now his statue hangs in the center of Florence,” she continued, “in commemoration of his greatness! And my son has just crafted seven clay pots in his honour. You know sometimes I underestimate Leo's insight, he is much like his father. I recently discovered that the postman is quite passionate about photography. It began when Leo gave him an old camera sold reasonably at a vintage market. And not to mention, Leo holds pottery classes for the orphans at the monastery, and now he wishes to invest in a library which he claims will ‘benefit the community’. It's a kind gesture I suppose or a lesson well rehearsed...I think Leo understands the value of entertainment, and it'll make his life a lot easier.”
I don't know why, but once Mrs. Lambert had spoken I felt unusually tired with an odd desire to speak to Leo. I'd now seen him in every light except my own, and I was beginning to feel I had the ill fortune of being present at every moment that matters. As I glazed the last of Leo's pots, much to my own relief Ms. Lambert smiled considerately and insisted I get rest.
The trouble with being a guest is the pleasant aura one must maintain at every given moment. I've never been easy to like. I find that people can be quite exhausting, and lately listening seems just as strenuous as speaking. But Celine never demanded much of me, or anyone. She decided I was no one the moment I arrived. A surprising relief, which left me feeling weightless and gentle.
She took to my presence like a tree to the wind, as if certain I was only passing by. I walked into my dimly lit room, where Leo stood quiet in the twilight by the open window facing the sea and I had never been more pleased to see anyone. He looked poised in the half light with the acute beauty of a carnivorous flower, then turned toward me crying, with a broken vase in his hands and a pair of orange scissors covered in clay. “I don't know how he did it, Nina, I tried...I don't know how he did it,” he said weeping, falling to his knees, cutting his foot on the scattered pieces of a broken vase. I last saw him this way the day he heard his father died and I gave him the only comfort I thought sincere. Because if my body were a temple, it would be the kind where tired men rest or gathered their strength, and so we performed our basic art, our artless art, and once we lay exhausted from our exercise our eyes grew heavy with a sleep as deep as sorrow but as long and willing as content.
The next morning I woke up to find Leo sweeping the broken fragments from the floor, then placing the orange scissors in a drawer. I watched him for some time and thought I'd speak, but it was nice to watch men move uninhibited. It didn't take long before he realized I was awake. He offered me tea and served it dark in a handleless mug and we spoke like old friends.
Leo soon insisted I get dressed. He wanted to take me to the ceremony of the dead, where villagers sat chanting in the shade, lighting small candles and incense placed on grass weaved baskets.
“I think this is a rather gracious way to mourn of the dead,” I thought aloud.
“Sure,” he answered, “but death is still harsh.”
I suppose we do what we can to make it beautiful.
Leo spoke with a finality which pierced my nerves, but I was calmed by his sudden embrace. “There was a body found at shore today,” he whispered. “They suspect it's one of the orphans. This ceremony is for him. It should last most of the day, but it’s got me feeling unusually heavy... I get an odd feeling you might leave again. Early this morning I spoke to Celine and I asked why she recieved you so acrimoniously. She told me she was not concerned with your intentions, Nina, but rather that you had none. It got me thinking of the first time I really saw you, seated on that tall rock at Umhlanga when I’d finally found courage to touch you. You were darker than ever in the height of Durban's summer, with your hair braided down to your breast. You never told me why you were crying. You just sat pensively there in your red satin shirt towering the spirals of waves. And I thought you were perfect, even in your nervousness. Do you remember how the sun played at that time of day? You muttered–seli bantu bahle. It is the time of day, you explained, when our people are beautiful.”
“But I wasn’t nervous that day...” I interrupted.
“I know! Just a little unsettled, I guess. Remember when we lay unclothed on the sand, and you wondered when the sun lends its shine to the moon. I laughed! My father and I made jokes of all the number of ways you expressed your impatience. I could have lay there all day, I thanked the day for it’s delay. But when it got cold and you rose to find your clothes I noticed tattooed on your back:
“In love with the Lake
the swan longs to stay longer
but the ice covers the lake
and the swan flies with no regret”
Tsangyang Gyat, Sixth Dalai Lama
In that moment I knew better than to call you mine, and since I'm not one to change the nature of things I simply loved you without cause, nothing more.”
And I stopped to wonder whether Leo loved causelessly or without hope. Whether I knew or ought to have known the etymology of cause. Why couldn’t I shake the image of Ms. Lambert’s gold and glaze? Was I the water in her palm...Does he cup me gently?
“Agh, Leo,” I said lightly. It felt important to speak lightly. “You overestimate me. You’re the one who’s loved by everyone you meet. You’re like a fair opponent to the sun, and no man can own the sun, nor does it give itself to anyone. I suppose I've never been one to change the nature of things either”. I felt a sense of equality once I'd spoken as we laughed quietly in the ceremony of the dead.
The time came for Leo to return to the monastery to hold his classes. He left a little more at ease, and as I strolled along the concrete streets, past local homes with tiny temples and the bright green fields of rice, I thought I could die here much to my own content. I arrived at the villa and lost my manners with the small meal Mrs. Lambert had prepared. I ate quickly, thanked her and then left. I was behaving more and more like Leo. I even attempted to read one the many tomes he had staked in the guest room. But I recalled the orange pair of scissors Celine had been looking for earlier, and I vaguely remembered where Leo had placed them.
It felt intrusive, scouting the bedroom in search the object Leo had tried to hide, but I still wanted Celine to like me, a terrible weakness of mine or unguarded intuition.
I found the scissors in the drawer, then walked across the hall to find Celine, laying on her bed with a blank expression on her face. Her skin seemed drained of colour, her lips almost white. “Is this what you were looking for?” I said with caution as I walked toward her, handing over the scissors. She rose slowly from her bed with a curious expression on her face, and as I placed the blades in her hand, her eyes watered.
“Where did you find it?" Celine inquired.
“They were hidden in one of the drawers in the guest room. Look, Celine, I don't mean to pry, but I last saw Leo in tears with these scissors in his hand. I didn't ask what was wrong, but I can't help but wonder if there is any reason Leo would hide these scissors from you .”
Celine, hesitant to speak, must have known that I’d betrayed Leo, though not merely to please her but because it has always been my belief that the nature of my curiousity is that which irresistably draws me to the truth. “I have no malice,” I confessed, but there was no need to persuade her. I had stolen Leo’s secret and given it to her.
“They are the closest thing to a photograph I have of Noman,” she said trembling. “ He had a unique way of shaping clay with scissors. These were his lucky pair and he made some of his most outstanding pieces with it, while Leo always insisted on doctrine. One must know the rules in order to break them, he'd often say with spite. Because although Leo can inspire an extraordinary work of art, he can't see past his own light. He doesn't create honestly, his head so cluttered with notions that he is almost incapable of sincere thought. I'm not saying my brother is a bad person or dim in any fashion, only that he's grown too accustomed to praise.
"The day Noman completed Leo's vase, his scissors went missing. An odd coincidence since Noman believed his gifts came from gods in a pair of orange scissors; scissors like the sun, he'd called them, and all the boys laughed at his small-mindedness. But he'd say: I do what I can to secure my modesty, words I thought wise because if ever there was a way to measure pride against creation, I'm convinced even a grain of salt could upset the balance of that scale. So for a while Noman refused to do pottery, and I've looked for those scissors ever since. I couldn't fool him with a new pair, he knew the weight and form of his own with all the hidden areas smeared with clay.
"Nevertheless, he would sit in the classroom an hour before lessons began and fiddle with clay. I would join him every now and then. He had somehow found a friend in me, and I soon suggested he make a pot using my hands. I'd be his pair of scissors, I said. He was taken by the idea and so during the many afternoons that followed he would place my hands on wet clay and move them as he pleased. At times I'd wish I were a woman capable of expressing my passion with less restraint, but we still laughed loud and abundantly.
"One afternoon, Leo arrived an hour early to find Noman and I covered in clay at the height of our amusement. At first he seemed pleasantly surprised, but he soon began setting up his apparatus with a seriousness which only added to our laughter. He began working quite intensely on a vase similar to Noman's, only with less distortion and better suited for practical use.
"I then saw him pull out an orange pair scissors to sharpen the rim of his vase. I didn't say anything, I figured I'd just take them back quietly once Leo was done with them. He continued his labor with impunity when Noman, disturbed by the cold silence which seemed to lack reason, walked toward Leo initiating a conversation. But startled by the sudden rush of orphans ushered in by the postman, he stumbled over a chair and broke his fall over Leo's half made vase.
"An accident which deformed its shape and enraged my poor brother. Leo pushed Noman with all the might his wrath could amass, and the blind boy flew back displaced from a thrust so brutal he snapped his neck on the hacked wooden table in the corner of the workshop.
"Without compunction, Leo fixed his eyes on his crooked vase. The postman panicked and guided the scared children out the classroom and, after a long deafining silence, I just stood there, petrified as they carried out his body and left it at sea.”
Celine wept endlessly as she closed her story, and I was simply mortified.
“Celine! Surely the kids, the postman, or you thought to report this? You loved him!” I said screaming thoughtlessly, insensitively, but she just turned away from me, wiping the last of her tears, then replied with no remorse, “Would you report it?”
“ I...no,” I thought. Realizing, “I couldn't.”
“Why?” she asked calmly, though she already knew.
“Because I ...” Still to this day couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“Well so does everybody else,” she deduced. “The kids can't lose their teacher, and I can't lose my brother. And then there is love, as you say, which has its own set of rules. My mother always said: 'The sun dried the desert, but who could hate the sun?’ Perhaps it would be the same with Leo.”
And soon the sun set, with our hearts heavy of feelings only suited to the night, and outside the old men chanted the ceremony of the dead. I left early the following morning, before the day could claim its throne. And I would never see Leo again, but I would love many more like him.
Lethokuhle Msimang is a South African poet and writer, born in Durban KwaZulu-Natal. Graduated with a B.A. in Literary Studies and Creative Arts at the American University of Paris, her poems have appeared in New Coin Poetry (Rhodes University, SA), Hanging Loose and The Paris/Atlantic. She is the founder of the South African Oral History Project, presently focused on the documentation of the Delville Wood Memorial and the role of South African Native Labour Corps. She is currently completing a book of linked short stories Tales of the Orange Time of Day.