One Hundred Babies
Madiba invites me to enter the well. At dusk he gives me a lily,
a cross and a drum. And his good wishes. He takes my hands in his
and says, Be strong. Our country needs your work. If I complete one
hundred quilts before dawn all the orphans with AIDS will be well by
The well is an ammonite, curling into the dark; a tunneling of
fabrics, and I am eager to serve. But a single quilt can take a
year, can take twenty-seven.
In the first chamber, bales of solid cottons heaped in organised
stacks are in colours of peanut and clay brick, soil and sunset. The
scents of calico and chintz are crushed wheat; the rich soft
corduroy, sweet chocolate sods. The babies will be warm under my
quilts: Sunshine and Shadows, and Building Blocks. But I need
pastels and primary colours for Baby Bow Tie, rainbow shades for
Little Buddy, not earth tones, not winter.
In the next chamber the prints flow crazily off their rolls: florals
and checks, paisley and polka dots; a shambles of clashing mauve and
fire, bruises and orange. Some quilts have been started, others are
almost done. There’s no time to order or sort. I must pick up the
incomplete sewing of other seamstresses. Sloppy seams tell of
hurried work. Corners do not intersect, colours do not match. With
racing fingers I might be able to complete just one before the night
is done, but other needlewomen failed here too. They did not begin
at the centre.
In the next room, the fabrics have been disturbed. Taffetas in sorry
shades are overturned, velvets in despair are strewn about. The room
is a swirl of bleak sheens and blistering light: stressed concrete
and winter haze, mining disasters and quarry glare. These will not
do for Pink Lemonade and Bright Garden.
Down a level, quickening my step, past tools and materials: set
squares and rotary blades, templates cut from x-rays, patterns
designed on old report cards, sewing machines and quilting looms.
Pre-cut shapes tower in wobbling piles of spun sugar squares,
triangles of fruit and hexagons of petals. But I must sort out the
unfamiliar shapes: hexagons and dodecahedrons, unsuitable for Little
Buddy and Wiggle Flowers.
When the clock strikes midnight, I am rushing through a room where
beads and buttons and sequins become freckles and eyes and tears. I
hurry, grabbing needles and thimbles, more than I can carry,
planning the quilts in my head: Play Mates for the girls, Sunny
Sailors for the boys.
Chamber after chamber, and still I carry the lily, cross and drum.
The stairs are stitches going down, down, down: basting and slip
stitch, blanket stitch for appliqué. If I go down far enough I will
find the centre, the place from where I must begin. But the hours
accelerate, the babies’ breath is shallow, their whimpers echo down
One hundred quilts or they will all die. The sky, a long way up is
turning orange. The ibis shrieks to greet the sun. No good fairies
appear, nor wizened crones. The quilts don’t piece themselves
together and I can’t silence that first bird.
The lily, the cross and the drum were never meant for the quilts. In
the middle of the ammonite is the old man’s pick and shovel. The
earth and lime, waiting for one hundred tiny caskets.
Liesl Jobson is a Johannesburg musician and writer. Her
work has appeared in The Southern Review, Diner, 3:AM, Snow*vigate,
elimae, Noö Journal and LICHEN and South African
publications Chimurenga, New Coin, Timbila, Carapace, Green
Dragon, New Contrast and Fidelities. She received the
2005 Ernst van Heerden Award from the University of the
Witwatersrand, for 100 Papers her anthology of flash fiction.
This collection will be published by Botsotso in Spring 2008.