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Fiction

The Jailer by Liesl Jobson

In the last weeks of my marriage I dream of isolation cells and concentration camps, soldiers on horseback, guards with guns and dogs straining at leashes snarling at lines of trudging prisoners, leading them to be interred alive.

On waking I brace myself daily for the attacks that make me feel like a tethered beast. I cannot think clearly. I try to reason. I need an escape route, must make a plan. But I donít know how to leave.

My folks are in Cape Town, 1000 miles away. They donít know how bad things are. I never vent about my husband. Iím too ashamed to tell my mother that I am shattering. Still. After 11 years in therapy. Coraís cancer is gaining ground. Every week she seems thinner. Her skin has turned grey. She moves as if her bones are broken. If I donít get away from my husband while she is still alive, I never will.

I havenít told my mother about the prolonged taunting, the ridicule, the belittling. One night near the end, my husband tells me something, then asks me what he said, but Iím confused. He tells me what he said; he tells me what I said; but even though I said it, I didnít mean it the way heís telling it. Itís twisted. The meaning. He asks me if heís wrong. He is, but I canít explain the misunderstanding. He tells and asks again; pushing, pulling, pushing. My head is an over-ripe apple, my neck is the stalk, twisting, round, round, round. It snaps. I grab a knife. As I raise it, I see it pumping over and over into his carotid artery. Instead I stab the pile of dinner dishes I was about to carry to the sink. When I stop screaming, a pile of shards covers the table and my daughter is sobbing down the passage. I thought she was asleep. The tramp is sniggering at the backdoor. There are gashes in the formica.

I am afraid of killing myself. Iíve wanted to do it for so long, but I have beliefs. They scare me into not doing it. I believe I am a suicide reincarnated. I have this lifetime to figure out how to survive. If I do it again, I will have to return, and next time wonít be so nice. Next time will be harder. But the tramp has no beliefs. The tramp follows me around the house, slouching in corners, watching me with his boozy eyes, always hovering. Heís started moving closer, nudging me, peering over my shoulder while I cook. I stand on his toes if I step backwards suddenly. And then he shuffles into a doorway, watching and waiting. I must placate him, tolerate his terrible smell and bad habits.

I have two small children, but the tramp doesnít bother them. I teach music at a nursery school one morning a week, but the tramp doesnít follow me there. I am a BahaíŪ, and the Local Spiritual Assembly has informed me that if I want to get divorced I must undergo a year of patience. That means I must live apart from my husband, receiving marital counselling. If, after a year of attempting to restore matrimonial harmony, we cannot be reconciled, then we may proceed with a divorce.

The psychiatrist says I have choices: I canít get rid of the tramp, but I must make him wait on a bench outside, or tell him to sleep on the grass in the sun. I donít have to talk to him any more than that; I shouldnít listen to him. I havenít told the psychiatrist that the tramp looks harmless but heís really a killer.

I am having an affair, which should make me feel ashamed, but doesnít. It makes me feel better because the tramp never follows me to my loverís house. The BahaíŪs donít know about my affair. I know it is wrong, but I canít stop it.

A jailer has locked me in a cage like a giant hen house made of steel bars, not chicken wire, and with no protective area to nest or roost or take cover from the howling wind. The cage is set on an abandoned beach, perched on the rocks, where it wobbles and shakes at sunset. A winter storm rides in on white horses which spray over the cage, drenching my thin clothes. The tide has turned and I have never been so cold. I donít know if I will die from exposure or drown as the water rises over the cage.

A lanky figure walks along the beach. At first I think it is the tramp. Now he will get me. He will finally kill me. When the figure gets closer, it isnít the tramp. It is a thin man who knows the way out. Maybe my lover, but it's too dark to see. He unlocks the cage and we steal away together. He doesnít talk, but leads me through a series of barred passages and stairs, climbing the scaffold in silence.

Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.