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Liesl Jobson

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 sunrise.

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 the well.

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.

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