the difference ‘h’ can make. how an aspirated letter can turn flower into writer. ‘Mbali’—‘Mbhali’.
she was a noun. a jewel on the landscape. exceeding Shlomo in all his kingly robes. it was enough for her to be. as Father had first planted her. beautiful. she was content to bloom in her season. to display to the rulers and authorities and powers the prettiness of His wisdom.
but then a breath stirred an unfamiliar urge to life. a compulsion. the need to write. and with that, she had to do. she was compelled to reproduce her essence in the world. be fruitful and multiply her aesthetic in words. to recreate. to recreate.
the power of a name. the power of sound to call out essence. Charlotte. pronounced SHAR-let. the French feminine diminutive of Charles. from Old German. meaning ‘free man’. she was the sword who freed the man inside I didn’t know was there. the poet. she pierced him to life.
I was fifteen when she came out from England on exchange. to Somerset College. Grade 10. the year I almost died.
it took a steady course of misdiagnoses before the doctors finally caught onto what I had caught. Malaria. the strain that attacks the brain. by that point I was in I.C.U.
the first GP I saw sent me home with meds and a prescription of a week’s rest to cure the fever. when it didn’t heal, the hospital took some tests and sent me home again. next they checked me into a room by myself for a number of days. then I was in the emergency ward.
I lost weight. a nurse tried to put a drip in my arm. she missed the vein. my forearm swelled to the size of a small rugby ball. visiting hours came. so did my mother. friends from church too. they popped in one Sunday to say hello. a family wailed on the other side of the ward. the body was removed. I remained. a nurse rolled me over to give me an enema. what a surprise. a catheter was inserted. a bed pan arrived. the curtains around my bed were closed. time was turned on-and-off with fluorescent lights. the tv. the high-frequency buzz of machines which watched over life. like the specialists. doctors in. doctors out. on crutches one morning, I struggled to the toilet.
the first term of school was only a few weeks in when the fever broke out. I returned in the third. in-between, Charlotte arrived. she settled in with her host family on the farm. attracted a number of love-interests. pressed her nose into the academic demands of the College.
while she got stuck into the turning of the world with its unceasing cycles, my presence waned in the collective mind of my classmates.
when I got onto my feet again, it was surreal to go back. no one seemed to have noticed my absence. fewer still my return. a profound sense of lightness dwelt in my bones. everything seemed to pass through me during those days. I was sure a too-strong wind would eventually blow me off into the void.
then, in August, our paths came together.
at a sleep-over on the farm. our first meeting. the only meaningful conversation we shared. it was facilitated by the fact that two of the boys were contending for Charlotte’s affection. so I was placed in the guestroom with her when bedtime arrived. to be a watchman of sorts. but I failed. we spoke and spoke our teenage hearts into dawn, by which time I had also fallen for her.
the depth of our exchange undid me. it left me speechless in her presence. I lost all composure in the ensuing weeks. fumbling my words, one break-time I asked her to the Grade 10 Dance. she told me she’d already asked another boy from the grade below. I wanted to run away. I didn’t know how to face what I felt for her. most days I desired to be near her. most days I suffered from word soup. say something—say something.
a phone call came from home. my grandmother had died. the funeral was scheduled for the weekend of the dance. the family was to travel north to Venda to mourn. I was relieved to have an escape from the ball.
and then Charlotte was on her way home. the end of the third term approached. so did the end of her exchange.
still choking to tell her how I felt, I wrote a poem at the last moment. it was a piece in rhyming couplets. a sonnet that spilled from my guts. roughshod. juvenile. in iambic tetrametre. it sparked a season of correspondence between us. from Cape Town to Truro to Cape Town and back. for a number of years we wrote. and then we grew apart.
a letter can be a compelling force. it can mean the difference between a friend and a lover. suppression and fulfilment. a flower and a writer.
in the wake of my first creative letter, I have had to choose. not a simple once-off choice which has opened up the way to writing happily ever after. but a commitment to recommit. year after year. say yes to greater demands. sacrifice to continue. to draw life from the sword.
the love of words pierces. but then again, what love doesn’t?
decide and exhale. how an aspirated letter can make a writer flower. ‘h’ where all the difference is made. ‘Mbali’—‘Mbhali’.
*the piece was originally a letter to a sister of mine named ‘Flower’.