Scary stories from a lovely place
Each morning I walk from my house down to the bottom of Auckland Park and back up again. Just inside Auckland Park there are spectacular cactus plants growing outside a ramshackle house on Hampton Ave. Before I came to Johannesburg cactuses were something that you bought in a tiny pot and hoped would grow but never actually changed. They were silly little novelty plants.
In South Africa I’ve seen them growing in gardens and in the wild, and they grow incredibly tall. This one on Hampton Ave is like that. It’s at least two stories high. It’s quite spectacular. If that isn’t enough the cactus is now flowering, something else I didn’t realise these plants did, not colossal, tough ones like this anyway. The flower suits the spirit of the cactus, it looks thick, but still soft, and it’s a pale yellow to match the smoky green of the body of the plant.
I love how beautiful things can come out of ugly. Like butterflies out of caterpillars or precious babies out of painful labour. The cactus flower looks like a particularly pertinent example of this.
It reminds me of one of my favourite books, George Eliot’s ‘Silas Marner’. I’ve loved ‘Marner’ since I read it in highschool and then at university. It’s also the inspiration for my firstborn son’s name. This may be a little odd if you’ve read ‘Silas Marner’. When I used to tell people that I wanted to name my kid Silas they would be shocked if they knew the story. One friend proclaimed “why do you want to name him after a cranky old man?” And that is indeed what Marner is.
The story begins with Silas Marner as a young man, working hard in his community, engaged to a young woman and serving his local church. After being cheated by his best friend, ostracised and demonised by his church family and community and dumped by his fiancee (who married the friend) Marner leaves town and starts a new life. But he doesn’t turn over a new leaf, rather a rotten one. The book fast forwards to Marner as a middle aged, cranky man. He has no friends and refuses to participate in normal society. He hates and mistrusts people. All he does is work constantly at his spinning wheel and obsess over the pieces of gold he earns.
He loves the gold. Every evening after a day of spinning he gets the gold out of it’s hiding place and greedily paws over it. With his failing eyesight the shiny colour is the only thing that lights up his grey cottage and life. But then it gets stolen. Poor Marner. He’s already had a crap time and he’s already so cranky. Lost and distraught he starts again to rebuild the pile.
One snowy evening he stumbles back to his cold stoep to find a blurry mess of the colour gold in a heap in front of his fire. Drawn by the colour he touches the shape, in hope that it is his loot returned. But it’s a little, lost orphan girl with golden, curly hair. He immediately adopts her, giving her the name Eppie and becomes a most devoted father. Eppie is his way back into the community. His neighbours help him to raise and discipline her. Eppie changes his life. She is the cactus flower. She is beautiful and she transforms something ugly and rough. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s as beautiful as the rest of the story.
My hope for Silas Reid is not that he will be reclusive or cranky like Marner. But I hope that the way Eliot describes the change in Marner will be true for whatever Silas Reid faces in his life – “as the child’s mind was growing into knowledge, his mind was growing into memory: as her life unfolded, his soul, long stupefied in a cold narrow prison, was unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness.”
Life and the world are pretty messed up. You have to be living a pretty reclusive life yourself to not realise that. Sometimes I agonise about bring children into this world and what life will be like for them when they are adults. I hope that Silas Reid will be like Marner, that the difficulties in his life will be altered and brightened by cactus flowers.