Mr Fire Eyes

When Miriam Gillian, 46-year old veteran in the postal services, spinster, heavyset, and sole resident of 47C Piet Retief–residents of 47A & B long dead–clenched her knuckles over her porcelain-capped teeth and spoke through her mouth at Harold Galloway, first customer of the week, the old pensioner had to ask for the second time how her day was, and when the tension rose in the post office building on that early December morning during the hottest recorded heat wave since 1976, the clock struck ten-fifteen behind the clerk’s head and outside, shimmering between the heat and the dusty road, clanged the invisible boots of a dead cattle rancher who will not be seen until the end of this tale.
‘I said hello to you, miss. Can you hear me over there?’
Harold, with his wisps of silver-and-yellowed hair wafting in the air-conditioned room, the silky strands dancing on the pink scalp, the overhead fan whop-whop-whopping while beads of sweat pearled from head to nape, looked at the shy clerk with her hand to her mouth and wiped his wrinkly neck.
Miriam sensed the man’s impatience came from no more an apparent reason than her mumbling, and she knew he construed her shyness as rudeness, even if he knew her mother had died the day before, a weekend death.
‘Paying customer over here, miss. Wake up, please.’
A snap of an old man’s fingers. Miriam speaking again through her fist, dark patches forming on her red-and-blue uniform.
Mhllu dud.
‘What?’ the white-and-yellow strands bounced. ‘Cripes, I can’t hear a bloody word you’re saying to me, girl. Speak up, please.’
Miriam’s gold-rimmed glasses glimmered in the white light, the blade of the fan swinging away, the fluorescent bulbs pinging from the air-con and its humming. Her smile cracked her tender, glowing skin and, pulling her fist off her teeth, repeated, Mhallu duh yestuhday.
Harold mumbled and looked around the empty post office before he growled at the clerk.
‘I can’t hear a damn word you’re saying — you’re in the damn service industry, for Christ’s sake. I said hello to you. Speak up, please.’
Miriam’s mother had died the Friday before, but the words became stuck in her throat.
She had written down a sentence on a sticky note: a phrase as easy as a baby cooning mah mah-tha dah-deh too-de but when her eyes landed on the scribbled edges of those jagged consonants, the dropped tapering it caused when a speaker’s forced smile became stiff at the end of the “today,” the grim message flanked by “my mother died.”
My mother died today.
She ripped the note off the pad and crumpled it underneath her desk, a curse best left for an unchiselled tombstone.
‘What’s that?’
Harold pried his neck over the counter and scoffed when Miriam placed her fist back on her lips. The message in the wastebasket already heard and spread by most in our town.
The old man waved his hands before her face AND SHOOK his head.
‘Unbelievable. What kind of place is this? Hello, miss,’ he snapped his yellowed fingers. ‘I’m talking to you.’
Her wet eyes and gold-rimmed spectacles reflected a man felt wronged. She wiped her lenses and muttered again, Mhallu duh yestuhday.
The skin underneath Harold’s chin rippled when he spoke.
‘Ma’am, do you know who I am?’ his finger tapped his chest. ‘I said talk to me, dammit! What kind of a bloody circus are you running around here? Are you deaf?’
She was not deaf, and she knew this man, of course. The whole town did. Miriam had heard the gossip around the old man Harold Galloway as much as anyone else living in a town as tiny as Bethesda, a town who had forced most residents as acquaintances and whose lips filled your heart with more specks of rumour than there was dirt on its streets.
Hearsay, slander, gossip, and scandal followed their own logic, just like dreams. You did not need a good memory to carry the stories but, just like with the devil, the details gave the rumours their life.
Working for the post office had certain advantages, and from what Miriam had read in Harold’s correspondences she had gathered snippets of information most in Bethesda had suspected but never outright knew or said in the open.
She had kept Harold’s secret until today’s hot December morning but common knowledge was this: once respected in the field of conflict archaeology, a profession that required great skill when the Anglo Boer War came in vogue during the early 1970s. A man widowed twice and hands behind the metaphorical rattle snake’s head of life. A man with the vision that all the wrongs afflicted in his advanced years were meshed with a world which he so deeply searched for in his studies, and with Miriam’s muffled greeting, the opportunity of righting a social etiquette presented itself like a bolt of lightning from an Afrikaner God, giving Harold a sword to whet his stone and straighten out an injustice where the degradation of good manners could not be abided.
Miriam mouthed again her, Mhallu dah eed, and in the eyes of the angry man she saw the strands of opportunity’s kindness slipping away between them through the post office’s door into the glowing heat.
‘Young lady, I’d like to speak to your manager, please. Right this second.’
Miriam did not need to turn her head to see the silver panes of the manager’s well-lit office glitter in the morning sun.
The door and blinds remained motionless and so did she.
‘Call him right now. I’m not going anywhere until I see your supervisor.’
In any other town, under the exact same circumstance, her supervisor Daniel Crossly–29-years young–would have had to come out of his well-lit office and, wiping down his freckled face, give the clerk under his management the unfortunate news of her a verbal warning in front of the disgruntled customer, perhaps a written warning when the customer left or while the customer was still present. And after being reprimanded for the second time for the same offense, the young manager would have the obligation to release the clerk of her duties and follow the various steps the unions cemented under law.
But not in Bethesda where the diddly-squat could grow up to your knees and sprout blue blossoms during the summer months, and not with our Miriam who was safer than a pig in a vegan house. She knew that, like the rest us and like mister Harold Galloway and manager Daniel Crossly knew, no one was knocking down doors to take away her clerical duties. No one had the experience or the know-how which required to operate such a valuable service desperately needed in such a small town where the ability to send post around the country became the difference between spending money on booze or picking up your own delivery and wasting valuable petrol driving around to drop your package to the next closest post office which was almost 50 kilometres away from Bethesda.
Miriam even helped manager Daniel through his first year at the post office, for goodness sake! But she never abused her position, always stayed in line, always cashing her allocated leave days she never used, and always helping the new employees by rubbing their shoulders when they made mistakes and patting their backs when they decided to spread their wings and leave the brittle nest of the postal service industry.
She always knew more about the residents themselves than they could ever expect to know about such the quiet, heavyset girl called Miriam.
‘Did you hear what I just said? I want to speak to your manager –’
Harold’s cold eyes searched the beige walls around the ticking clock where photos of the all the employees with their friendly faces and idiotic smiles stared back from glassed frames. His eyes landed on the manager’s photo.
‘Where is this mister Daniel Crossly? I’d like to speak to him right this second now, miss. Get him. I’m not going anywhere.’
The blinds in the manager’s office rustled. The silver panes flickered with audible distress but no one stepped out and Miriam did not move. Heat rose from her cheeks as the fan whop-whop-whopped above their head.
The wave of anger radiated off Harold and crashed over Miriam’s closed eyes, the breeze from the air-con caressing her brow like the cool touch of a mother’s hand. She ignored the hatred from the first customer of the week.
Silently in the pink darkness of her mind, she began to sing the light country music of Virginia Lee. Miriam’s only escape and passion, she would smile and hum the gentle country hits recorded in the city of Port Elizabeth. Manager Daniel did not care for any music, however light to the ears they might be. Said it would disrupt the ebb and flow of communication between postal workers and customers. But no amount of supervision could get the tunes out of Miriam’s head. She purred to herself, and out of her head came–to Miriam’s estimation–the country singer’s greatest hit song, a cover of Bonnie Guitar’s “Mr Fire Eyes:”

Mister Fire Eyes,
From the start, you stole my heart,
But not just a part, my whole heart,
Mister Fire Eyes

I’m up and down like a clown,
Running round and around over you.

With a twangy guitar intro and an upbeat rhythm able to move even the staunchest of Christian butts, the ladies at the Bethesda Bowls Club always scoffed at Miriam’s taste of music. The way the spinster postal clerk would croon over the voice of Virginia Lee so, and how she had longed for a certain mister Fire Eyes so pathetically. None of the ladies with their snide remarks against Miriam knew it was also her mother’s favourite song.
And as the finger bones moved underneath her teeth so too did she draw blood.
And the old man Harold’s smile? It became bitter, his wrinkled brow a dried riverbed of knitted fierceness.
‘You listen here to me, young lady,’ a liver-spotted hand trembled in Miriam’s face, the retired archaeologist mistaking her tears for intimidation. ‘You need to listen here now. I didn’t come all this way, all this bloody way in this damnable heat, this heat that would scorch the balls off the devil Lucifer, so that you, you that’re supposed to work for me, the taxpayer, mumble like an ingrate. Look at me when I’m talking to you, dammit, and call your bloody manager!’
And through the post office’s doors came the second customer of the day, an elderly lady by the name of Constance Blanche Miriam knew from the bowls club.
An hour-and-a-half away from noon, Mrs Blanche dodged the scorcher outside and sauntered into the cool of the post office, puffing a pleasant sigh, smiling past Harold’s back and nodding at the teary Miriam.
‘Morning, Harold. Morning, Miriam,’ wiping her head, Mrs Blanche sailed towards the counter. ‘How’re we doing today, ol’ girl? I thought you would be booked off for today –’
The old lady’s smile dropped when Harold raised his voice.
‘I won’t ask you again, young lady. Get me that farkakte manager out here right this second or I’m calling your head office.’
Miriam kept her eyes closed. The cold tingle of terror shivered up her spine, but she kept quiet.
‘Hallo? Hallo?’
The old man’s voice became soft and Miriam assumed Harold was addressing Mrs Blanche behind him.
‘Can you believe this? She’s not even looking — Unbelievable.’
The voice became loud then soft again.
‘Hello? Are you seeing this?’
Miriam’s cheeks burned and the rage punted her chest and arm-wrestled her fright, the anger a slow turning wrench. The anger came and she… did she…? Yes, it seems that she… somehow… enjoyed it?
‘Miriam dear? Are you alright?’
‘Just unbelievable. Can you believe this? She won’t even look at me. Bitch.’
‘Harold, really now –’
Behind her closed eyes, Miriam imagined Mrs Blanche resting her hand on the angry man’s shoulder.
‘– is there any need for such language? What did this poor girl ever do to you, you old coot?’
‘Can’t you see? She’s like a robot. She won’t look at me, won’t say hello. Nothing!’
‘Don’t you know what happened?’
‘Couldn’t tell you — What?’
‘Poor girl’s mother died Sunday night.’
Mrs Blanche rose her voice in a pleasant chirp.
‘Miriam, you alright? Will you look at us, please?’
‘I don’t care what happened on Sunday — and get your hands off me, Constance. I did nothing wrong. It’s this, this, what I can only assume is a mentally degenerate girl –’
Miriam felt the words coil like a snake around her throat.
‘– no manners at all, no sense. Probably stupid as well.’
‘Harold! Really, that’s quite enough of that, I think.’
‘You know what is the worst part –?’
Miriam opened her eyes and locked on Harold’s gaze. Mrs Blanche’s mouth was still agape at the old man’s language. All fingers trembled, the field around the old man’s hatred like the roasting sun.
‘Ah, there she is,’ Harold sneered and clapped his hands in applause. ‘Finally awake, are you, you stupid girl?’
The manager had not stepped out of his office yet, perhaps smoking his fifth cigarette for the morning, ready to build whatever courage a boy in his position could gather.
‘For goodness sake, Harold. What has gotten into you this morning? I don’t understand any of this beastly behaviour.’
‘I know that this bitch steals from us.’
‘Stop this madness now… you’re out of line.’
Miriam heard Mrs Blanche’s voice taper off not at the abuse but at the accusation. Recognition covered the post office floor like a cool mist.
‘No, Constance. She’s the one who’s out of line. The bloody nerve. I’ve seen her do it, too, you know.’
‘Do what?’
‘The stealing! From all of us. I’ve seen it, Constance, I’ve seen it.’
Miriam closed her eyes again and Mrs Blanche’s walnut eyes swam in the pink darkness.
‘That’s not true,’ the old lady’s voice dove between the sounds of Virginia Lee’s cool country hit. ‘That can’t possibly be true what your accusing this poor girl of. Tell him that’s not true, Miriam. Open your eyes, girl.’
But it was true. She was, indeed, a thief.
Miriam’s transgression, the one flanked open today, began like most transgressions: with pure curiosity.
In her first week of working at the post office, a single envelope with a birthday card addressed to an 11-year-old Michael Slate from “the Grandma in the Free State” minus the money promised in the letter. No police had come and no confrontation from the Slate family neither.
Miriam tried again.
And again.
And again and again until her wrongdoing became serial petty theft. But with no one knocking on the post office’s door demanding who tore opened their letters, her crime spree had morphed into a steady routine. Thursdays the post designated for the post-boxes landed in her hands. She would place the letters and pamphlets into their stainless-steel pigeonholes while the “physicals,” post marked for the street, fell into the hands of Jeremy Saaiman, Bethesda’s only postman. Miriam soon discovered Mr Saaiman had a taste for teenage-themed pornography (Hustler’s Barely Legal, Gentleman’s Under 21s and other similar publications) and what she could only decipher as illegal gambling because the code words and magazine cut-outs made her giggle. The rush of not being caught on Monday made her giddy for Thursday.
And when the old man yelled in the quiet post office, Miriam felt what the priest at St. Blaise’s church called an “out of body experience,” the sensation that, while feeling the aliveness within the body, the psyche–or the spiritual dimension—would, due to intense stress or trauma, fly out of the body and stay tethered like a kite tangled in a tree to give a CCTV-camera version of the victim’s life.
Like a bird against the ceiling, Miriam saw the roof and the floor. The confrontation. Harold and Constance and herself released from her gravel-road skin, her body dotted with virgin cellulite. Her vision free like dandeliosn swaying in the euphoria of Virginia Lee’s greatest country hit.
“Mister Fire Eyes” echoed in her ears as she counted the bodies down below:
One: herself. Two: Harold. Three: Constance. Four: the manager strutting through the side door back into his well-lit office.
And at the post office’s entrance… number five?
There was a stranger at the door. A cattle rancher. The stranger leaned against the wooden frame. Miriam’s body below did not twitch. Mrs Blanche did not look behind her. Harold, unaware of the new presence, spilled the spinster clerk’s secrets into the cool belly of the post office, the fierce morning outside.
Miriam tasted tobacco and whiskey and manure. The smell tingled the back of her throat. She did not cough and the stranger did not move.
The stranger at the door looked not at the three at the counter but up towards the heavyset Miriam’s eyes hovered. And when the stranger smiled, his eyes reminded her of… who? She knew everyone in Bethesda and most of their posted secrets but she did not know who this man was.
The music told her.
Of course. It must be. It must be… Mr Fire Eyes?
Virginia Lee’s voice twanged. The two voices below argued and harangued over the quiet clerk.
The Miriam in the ceiling stretched her lips and pushed out a smile towards the stranger.
It’s him. It’s really him.
The man nodded, no more a stranger.
Miriam had imagined him exactly the way Virginia Lee crooned. The cowboy, leaning like that, the rim of his hat nearly over his eyes, the smell of manure and tobacco and whiskey wafting in cool air. Mr Fire Eyes. He tilted his head back, looked up, and nodded.
Go ahead, his eyes said to Miriam, the rough sunburned smile cracking across his face. You’re caught, so by the rules of the devil you might as well take the lead with the beast and make your own little playground. What you think about that, darling?
The voices of Harold and Constance breached the darkness of Miriam’s body below.
‘Mongrel is what she is. Inbred degenerate –’
‘Harold, that’s enough.’
Mrs Blanche clutched Harold’s shoulder and with her brittle, bird hands swung him around.
‘Listen here, Constance –’
‘No, you listen here,’ Mrs Blanche’s bracelets tingled. ‘I’m sure the girl you are talking about has almost done no such thing as you are accusing her of — I’m not done.’
Miriam’s eyes dropped back into her body like a pair of lead balloons. Slowly at first but surely as time ticked away.
‘Not our Miriam. My goodness, the accusations, Harold. And such filthy language! What would your dear father say if he heard you? Or your son? How can you talk like this?’
‘She’s a thief, Constance,’ the old man rubbed the corners of his lips. ‘And my son, God bless his soul, would tear her apart if he ever knew.’
The liver-spotted finger trembled in Miriam’s face again.
‘Limb from limb. It’s unpardonable what she took from us.’
Mrs Blanche shook her head, jewels tinging.
‘I’m sorry, Harold, about your son. But what you’re saying about this girl? You’re wrong. She would never do such a thing.’
God bless Constance Blanche’s defence, but when Harold opened his mouth for the last time that day —
‘Bloody cunt, is what she is.’
— Miriam’s body trembled from all the secrets she had uncovered over the years. The snooping, the spying, the theft, all of the invasion she had managed over the years rattled her bones.
Her soul snapped back like one of Virginia Lee’s too taught guitar strings, her eyes crashing back behind her gold-rimmed spectacles. Her teeth gnawed and sliced the skin of her forefinger.
The quiet tick of the clock clicked while her words rose and tumbled out her mouth like a fountain of stones.
Miriam clenched her fist next to her side and, clear as a whistle, said:
‘My grief will not be your gossip, you, you… you homeowner!’
Yes, she said “homeowner.”
The voice of Virginia Lee screeched to a stop. Mr Fire Eyes stood in the entrance, his face placid from her words.
Harold grew silent as Miriam’s words, a misspoken homophobic slur, crept from under Miriam’s teeth and over her lips to bounce against the beige walls.
‘What did you say to me, young lady?’
Miriam knew her selection of words was out of character, but so were her actions today, and as she came guns a-blazing she watched Mr Fire Eyes shimmer at the door in the bright morning light.
Yellow-and-silver tufts of hair flickered on Harold’s blossoming scalp. The air-con hissed and the fan buzzed.
‘I want to speak to your manager right this instant, lady, or so help me God –’
Miriam stood up and wrung her hands in her sweaty palms.
‘Shut up.’
Harold’s mouth seemed to drop right to his knees while Blanche gasped.
‘What did you say?’
‘I said shut up.’
‘Miriam.’
‘No, missus Blanche. My mother died today, missus Blanche. My mother died today and –’
Miriam snatched the sticky note out of the wastepaper basket and unrumpled what she had written, showing it to the stunned Harold.
‘– and there is no one that I can talk to!’
Miriam crumpled the paper again and threw the message in the old man’s face.
She never sweated like this before, not before lunch in any case, but this was different. The heavyset spinster felt her muscles pump underneath the red-and-blue uniform. Her temples throbbed. She knew her life was about to change, but she welcomed it. A scab ripped off skin.
‘Listen here, you –’
‘Filthy poop stain is what you are,’ Miriam said. ‘I did not ask to know your dirty little secrets but I will say it to the world because my grief will not be your gossip, Mister Harold Galloway. No, I will not be your gossip.’
The words poured out clearly and lightly, hard and bullet-like, the whites of her eyes shimmering like pearls. Harold stood while this young girl, angry and round, pushed her words out towards him.
Manager Daniel Crossly’s office blinds rustled again in the well-lit room. The silver panes flickered as a set of bespectacled eyes leered out.
‘I know what you do on your weekends, you,’ Miriam rolled the words out. ‘You filthy man. You homeowner!’
Harold said nothing, his jaw on the floor.
‘Miriam,’ Mrs Blanche said. ‘What’s gotten into you? What are you talkimg about?’
‘That’s right,’ Miriam smirked at the quiet Harold. ‘We all know. Even Missus Blanche behind you knows,’ she spat out a gruff giggle which rattled the old man’s quivering bones. ‘How’s that for a “mental degenerate”? How’s that boy in Durban doing? Tsego Makane, if I remember correctly. Xhosa name, isn’t it, Mister Galloway? Or a “non-white,” as you would say to your friends and family.’
Whop-whop-whop-whop, said the fan.
Harold trembled in his shoes. The veins on his arms and thighs were blue. Miriam imagined the old man’s penis becoming now hard not from excitement but from fear.
Mrs Blanche lowered her hands as she stared wide-eyed at the married man of 23 years.
‘What… what is she talking about, Harold? Why would Miriam say these things?’
Miriam pointed a finger at the silent, shaking man. The electricity of change took over her body.
‘He knows, Missus Blanche. That’s why he’s so quiet. Behind Missus Galloway’s back for over seven months now.’
‘I don’t know what this girl is talking about,’ Harold shook his head and turned towards the door. ‘This place is a bloody circus –’
‘“I love it when a black man ‘effs’ me missionary style. The feeling of your ‘c-word’–”’
Miriam did not want to say “fuck,” “cum,” or “asshole,” so she opted for “eff,” “c-word,” and “a-hole.”
‘“– making your brown-and-pink penis wet in my ‘a-hole.’”’
Harold Galloway, white and grey, stormed out the post office past a transparent Mr Fire Eyes. Constance Blanche stood in awe and watched Miriam sit back on her pneumatic chair.
‘I could not believe people spoke like this in letters. I just can’t believe it.’
Miriam spoke to herself as her heavyset arms rested on the counter. Her cold fingers rubbed the lenses of her gold-rimmed spectacles. She waited for the manager to storm out of his office. It did not take long.
Daniel yelled when he burst through the grey-and-white manager’s door.
‘Miriam! My office, now!’
He slammed the door and the silver panes rattled.
Constance Blanche held a hand over her mouth, jowls trembling, her eyes wide. The old woman turned and left the post office right behind Harold Galloway.
Miriam watched the lady go. She wondered if either Harold or Mrs Blanche ever saw the Mr Fire Eyes at the front door. Probably not.
Miriam smiled at the quiet post office. She knew she wouldn’t be fired today. A complaint had to be laid and she felt neither Daniel Crossly nor Harold Galloway would take that step for reasons of workload and embarrassment respectively. She just hoped that missus Constance Blanche would not be silly enough to make the complaint herself, but if that were to happen Bethesda’s secrets, all its excrement and filth, would soon come out gushing down the dusty roads, covering the residents in everyone else’s abject horror and disgust. Miriam had so much more to tell, Harold was just the first of many. The town could become clean from the release of the suppressed filth, she supposed. And whatever she knew would not be just her secrets anymore but everyone else’s. Peace. She was ready no matter what happened after today.
Miriam pushed herself off the hissing chair and searched her uniform pockets. She plucked out a coin and steadied the copper disk on top of her manicured thumbnails.
A quick flip for everyone’s fate. The copper glinted. Miriam called the sides and the consequences. Heads for this and tails for that. The coin tumbled in the air and rattled when it landed on the linoleum floor. It stopped. She smiled.
Tails. Decided.
Miriam’s gold-rimmed spectacles glistened in the morning light as she swung her hips towards the manager’s office. She was hungry. She wanted to have a small lunch and then take a nap at home. No one would bother her today. She would then go to the funeral parlour when the afternoon heat had died down.
Her gravel-like skin shone from the heat, her eyes bright and on fire.
Adrenalin, pride, and change. The forever changed.
The smell of fervour dangled in the air as the fan and air-con whopped and hissed their silent praise, Mr Fire Eyes gone, the only witnesses to the spinster’s shattering chrysalis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Title: Mr Fire Eyes

 

Author Name: Theo Volschenk

 

 

When Miriam Gillian, 46-year old veteran in the postal services, spinster, heavyset, and sole resident of 47C Piet Retief–residents of 47A & B long dead–clenched her knuckles over her porcelain-capped teeth and spoke through her mouth at Harold Galloway, first customer of the week, the old pensioner had to ask for the second time how her day was, and when the tension rose in the post office building on that early December morning during the hottest recorded heat wave since 1976, the clock struck ten-fifteen behind the clerk’s head and outside, shimmering between the heat and the dusty road, clanged the invisible boots of a dead cattle rancher who will not be seen until the end of this tale.

‘I said hello to you, miss. Can you hear me over there?’

Harold, with his wisps of silver-and-yellowed hair wafting in the air-conditioned room, the silky strands dancing on the pink scalp, the overhead fan whop-whop-whopping while beads of sweat pearled from head to nape, looked at the shy clerk with her hand to her mouth and wiped his wrinkly neck.

Miriam sensed the man’s impatience came from no more an apparent reason than her mumbling, and she knew he construed her shyness as rudeness, even if he knew her mother had died the day before, a weekend death.

‘Paying customer over here, miss. Wake up, please.’

A snap of an old man’s fingers. Miriam speaking again through her fist, dark patches forming on her red-and-blue uniform.

Mhllu dud.

‘What?’ the white-and-yellow strands bounced. ‘Cripes, I can’t hear a bloody word you’re saying to me, girl. Speak up, please.’

Miriam’s gold-rimmed glasses glimmered in the white light, the blade of the fan swinging away, the fluorescent bulbs pinging from the air-con and its humming. Her smile cracked her tender, glowing skin and, pulling her fist off her teeth, repeated, Mhallu duh yestuhday.

Harold mumbled and looked around the empty post office before he growled at the clerk.

‘I can’t hear a damn word you’re saying — you’re in the damn service industry, for Christ’s sake. I said hello to you. Speak up, please.’

Miriam’s mother had died the Friday before, but the words became stuck in her throat.

She had written down a sentence on a sticky note: a phrase as easy as a baby cooning mah mah-tha dah-deh too-de but when her eyes landed on the scribbled edges of those jagged consonants, the dropped tapering it caused when a speaker’s forced smile became stiff at the end of the “today,” the grim message flanked by “my mother died.”

My mother died today.

She ripped the note off the pad and crumpled it underneath her desk, a curse best left for an unchiselled tombstone.

‘What’s that?’

Harold pried his neck over the counter and scoffed when Miriam placed her fist back on her lips. The message in the wastebasket already heard and spread by most in our town.

The old man waved his hands before her face AND SHOOK his head.

‘Unbelievable. What kind of place is this? Hello, miss,’ he snapped his yellowed fingers. ‘I’m talking to you.’

Her wet eyes and gold-rimmed spectacles reflected a man felt wronged. She wiped her lenses and muttered again, Mhallu duh yestuhday.

The skin underneath Harold’s chin rippled when he spoke.

‘Ma’am, do you know who I am?’ his finger tapped his chest. ‘I said talk to me, dammit! What kind of a bloody circus are you running around here? Are you deaf?’

She was not deaf, and she knew this man, of course. The whole town did. Miriam had heard the gossip around the old man Harold Galloway as much as anyone else living in a town as tiny as Bethesda, a town who had forced most residents as acquaintances and whose lips filled your heart with more specks of rumour than there was dirt on its streets.

Hearsay, slander, gossip, and scandal followed their own logic, just like dreams. You did not need a good memory to carry the stories but, just like with the devil, the details gave the rumours their life.

Working for the post office had certain advantages, and from what Miriam had read in Harold’s correspondences she had gathered snippets of information most in Bethesda had suspected but never outright knew or said in the open.

She had kept Harold’s secret until today’s hot December morning but common knowledge was this: once respected in the field of conflict archaeology, a profession that required great skill when the Anglo Boer War came in vogue during the early 1970s. A man widowed twice and hands behind the metaphorical rattle snake’s head of life. A man with the vision that all the wrongs afflicted in his advanced years were meshed with a world which he so deeply searched for in his studies, and with Miriam’s muffled greeting, the opportunity of righting a social etiquette presented itself like a bolt of lightning from an Afrikaner God, giving Harold a sword to whet his stone and straighten out an injustice where the degradation of good manners could not be abided.

Miriam mouthed again her, Mhallu dah eed, and in the eyes of the angry man she saw the strands of opportunity’s kindness slipping away between them through the post office’s door into the glowing heat.

‘Young lady, I’d like to speak to your manager, please. Right this second.’

Miriam did not need to turn her head to see the silver panes of the manager’s well-lit office glitter in the morning sun.

The door and blinds remained motionless and so did she.

‘Call him right now. I’m not going anywhere until I see your supervisor.’

In any other town, under the exact same circumstance, her supervisor Daniel Crossly–29-years young–would have had to come out of his well-lit office and, wiping down his freckled face, give the clerk under his management the unfortunate news of her a verbal warning in front of the disgruntled customer, perhaps a written warning when the customer left or while the customer was still present. And after being reprimanded for the second time for the same offense, the young manager would have the obligation to release the clerk of her duties and follow the various steps the unions cemented under law.

But not in Bethesda where the diddly-squat could grow up to your knees and sprout blue blossoms during the summer months, and not with our Miriam who was safer than a pig in a vegan house. She knew that, like the rest us and like mister Harold Galloway and manager Daniel Crossly knew, no one was knocking down doors to take away her clerical duties. No one had the experience or the know-how which required to operate such a valuable service desperately needed in such a small town where the ability to send post around the country became the difference between spending money on booze or picking up your own delivery and wasting valuable petrol driving around to drop your package to the next closest post office which was almost 50 kilometres away from Bethesda.

Miriam even helped manager Daniel through his first year at the post office, for goodness sake! But she never abused her position, always stayed in line, always cashing her allocated leave days she never used, and always helping the new employees by rubbing their shoulders when they made mistakes and patting their backs when they decided to spread their wings and leave the brittle nest of the postal service industry.

She always knew more about the residents themselves than they could ever expect to know about such the quiet, heavyset girl called Miriam.

‘Did you hear what I just said? I want to speak to your manager –’

Harold’s cold eyes searched the beige walls around the ticking clock where photos of the all the employees with their friendly faces and idiotic smiles stared back from glassed frames. His eyes landed on the manager’s photo.

‘Where is this mister Daniel Crossly? I’d like to speak to him right this second now, miss. Get him. I’m not going anywhere.’

The blinds in the manager’s office rustled. The silver panes flickered with audible distress but no one stepped out and Miriam did not move. Heat rose from her cheeks as the fan whop-whop-whopped above their head.

The wave of anger radiated off Harold and crashed over Miriam’s closed eyes, the breeze from the air-con caressing her brow like the cool touch of a mother’s hand. She ignored the hatred from the first customer of the week.

Silently in the pink darkness of her mind, she began to sing the light country music of Virginia Lee. Miriam’s only escape and passion, she would smile and hum the gentle country hits recorded in the city of Port Elizabeth. Manager Daniel did not care for any music, however light to the ears they might be. Said it would disrupt the ebb and flow of communication between postal workers and customers. But no amount of supervision could get the tunes out of Miriam’s head. She purred to herself, and out of her head came–to Miriam’s estimation–the country singer’s greatest hit song, a cover of Bonnie Guitar’s “Mr Fire Eyes:”

 

Mister Fire Eyes,

From the start, you stole my heart,

But not just a part, my whole heart,

Mister Fire Eyes

 

I’m up and down like a clown,

Running round and around over you.

 

With a twangy guitar intro and an upbeat rhythm able to move even the staunchest of Christian butts, the ladies at the Bethesda Bowls Club always scoffed at Miriam’s taste of music. The way the spinster postal clerk would croon over the voice of Virginia Lee so, and how she had longed for a certain mister Fire Eyes so pathetically. None of the ladies with their snide remarks against Miriam knew it was also her mother’s favourite song.

And as the finger bones moved underneath her teeth so too did she draw blood.

And the old man Harold’s smile? It became bitter, his wrinkled brow a dried riverbed of knitted fierceness.

‘You listen here to me, young lady,’ a liver-spotted hand trembled in Miriam’s face, the retired archaeologist mistaking her tears for intimidation. ‘You need to listen here now. I didn’t come all this way, all this bloody way in this damnable heat, this heat that would scorch the balls off the devil Lucifer, so that you, you that’re supposed to work for me, the taxpayer, mumble like an ingrate. Look at me when I’m talking to you, dammit, and call your bloody manager!’

And through the post office’s doors came the second customer of the day, an elderly lady by the name of Constance Blanche Miriam knew from the bowls club.

An hour-and-a-half away from noon, Mrs Blanche dodged the scorcher outside and sauntered into the cool of the post office, puffing a pleasant sigh, smiling past Harold’s back and nodding at the teary Miriam.

‘Morning, Harold. Morning, Miriam,’ wiping her head, Mrs Blanche sailed towards the counter. ‘How’re we doing today, ol’ girl? I thought you would be booked off for today –’

The old lady’s smile dropped when Harold raised his voice.

‘I won’t ask you again, young lady. Get me that farkakte manager out here right this second or I’m calling your head office.’

Miriam kept her eyes closed. The cold tingle of terror shivered up her spine, but she kept quiet.

‘Hallo? Hallo?’

The old man’s voice became soft and Miriam assumed Harold was addressing Mrs Blanche behind him.

‘Can you believe this? She’s not even looking — Unbelievable.’

The voice became loud then soft again.

‘Hello? Are you seeing this?’

Miriam’s cheeks burned and the rage punted her chest and arm-wrestled her fright, the anger a slow turning wrench. The anger came and she… did she…? Yes, it seems that she… somehow… enjoyed it?

‘Miriam dear? Are you alright?’

‘Just unbelievable. Can you believe this? She won’t even look at me. Bitch.’

‘Harold, really now –’

Behind her closed eyes, Miriam imagined Mrs Blanche resting her hand on the angry man’s shoulder.

‘– is there any need for such language? What did this poor girl ever do to you, you old coot?’

‘Can’t you see? She’s like a robot. She won’t look at me, won’t say hello. Nothing!’

‘Don’t you know what happened?’

‘Couldn’t tell you — What?’

‘Poor girl’s mother died Sunday night.’

Mrs Blanche rose her voice in a pleasant chirp.

‘Miriam, you alright? Will you look at us, please?’

‘I don’t care what happened on Sunday — and get your hands off me, Constance. I did nothing wrong. It’s this, this, what I can only assume is a mentally degenerate girl –’

Miriam felt the words coil like a snake around her throat.

‘– no manners at all, no sense. Probably stupid as well.’

‘Harold! Really, that’s quite enough of that, I think.’

‘You know what is the worst part –?’

Miriam opened her eyes and locked on Harold’s gaze. Mrs Blanche’s mouth was still agape at the old man’s language. All fingers trembled, the field around the old man’s hatred like the roasting sun.

‘Ah, there she is,’ Harold sneered and clapped his hands in applause. ‘Finally awake, are you, you stupid girl?’

The manager had not stepped out of his office yet, perhaps smoking his fifth cigarette for the morning, ready to build whatever courage a boy in his position could gather.

‘For goodness sake, Harold. What has gotten into you this morning? I don’t understand any of this beastly behaviour.’

‘I know that this bitch steals from us.’

‘Stop this madness now… you’re out of line.’

Miriam heard Mrs Blanche’s voice taper off not at the abuse but at the accusation. Recognition covered the post office floor like a cool mist.

‘No, Constance. She’s the one who’s out of line. The bloody nerve. I’ve seen her do it, too, you know.’

‘Do what?’

‘The stealing! From all of us. I’ve seen it, Constance, I’ve seen it.’

Miriam closed her eyes again and Mrs Blanche’s walnut eyes swam in the pink darkness.

‘That’s not true,’ the old lady’s voice dove between the sounds of Virginia Lee’s cool country hit. ‘That can’t possibly be true what your accusing this poor girl of. Tell him that’s not true, Miriam. Open your eyes, girl.’

But it was true. She was, indeed, a thief.

Miriam’s transgression, the one flanked open today, began like most transgressions: with pure curiosity.

In her first week of working at the post office, a single envelope with a birthday card addressed to an 11-year-old Michael Slate from “the Grandma in the Free State” minus the money promised in the letter. No police had come and no confrontation from the Slate family neither.

Miriam tried again.

And again.

And again and again until her wrongdoing became serial petty theft. But with no one knocking on the post office’s door demanding who tore opened their letters, her crime spree had morphed into a steady routine. Thursdays the post designated for the post-boxes landed in her hands. She would place the letters and pamphlets into their stainless-steel pigeonholes while the “physicals,” post marked for the street, fell into the hands of Jeremy Saaiman, Bethesda’s only postman. Miriam soon discovered Mr Saaiman had a taste for teenage-themed pornography (Hustler’s Barely Legal, Gentleman’s Under 21s and other similar publications) and what she could only decipher as illegal gambling because the code words and magazine cut-outs made her giggle. The rush of not being caught on Monday made her giddy for Thursday.

And when the old man yelled in the quiet post office, Miriam felt what the priest at St. Blaise’s church called an “out of body experience,” the sensation that, while feeling the aliveness within the body, the psyche–or the spiritual dimension—would, due to intense stress or trauma, fly out of the body and stay tethered like a kite tangled in a tree to give a CCTV-camera version of the victim’s life.

Like a bird against the ceiling, Miriam saw the roof and the floor. The confrontation. Harold and Constance and herself released from her gravel-road skin, her body dotted with virgin cellulite. Her vision free like dandeliosn swaying in the euphoria of Virginia Lee’s greatest country hit.

“Mister Fire Eyes” echoed in her ears as she counted the bodies down below:

One: herself. Two: Harold. Three: Constance. Four: the manager strutting through the side door back into his well-lit office.

And at the post office’s entrance… number five?

There was a stranger at the door. A cattle rancher. The stranger leaned against the wooden frame. Miriam’s body below did not twitch. Mrs Blanche did not look behind her. Harold, unaware of the new presence, spilled the spinster clerk’s secrets into the cool belly of the post office, the fierce morning outside.

Miriam tasted tobacco and whiskey and manure. The smell tingled the back of her throat. She did not cough and the stranger did not move.

The stranger at the door looked not at the three at the counter but up towards the heavyset Miriam’s eyes hovered. And when the stranger smiled, his eyes reminded her of… who? She knew everyone in Bethesda and most of their posted secrets but she did not know who this man was.

The music told her.

Of course. It must be. It must be… Mr Fire Eyes?

Virginia Lee’s voice twanged. The two voices below argued and harangued over the quiet clerk.

The Miriam in the ceiling stretched her lips and pushed out a smile towards the stranger.

It’s him. It’s really him.

The man nodded, no more a stranger.

Miriam had imagined him exactly the way Virginia Lee crooned. The cowboy, leaning like that, the rim of his hat nearly over his eyes, the smell of manure and tobacco and whiskey wafting in cool air. Mr Fire Eyes. He tilted his head back, looked up, and nodded.

Go ahead, his eyes said to Miriam, the rough sunburned smile cracking across his face. You’re caught, so by the rules of the devil you might as well take the lead with the beast and make your own little playground. What you think about that, darling?

The voices of Harold and Constance breached the darkness of Miriam’s body below.

‘Mongrel is what she is. Inbred degenerate –’

‘Harold, that’s enough.’

Mrs Blanche clutched Harold’s shoulder and with her brittle, bird hands swung him around.

‘Listen here, Constance –’

‘No, you listen here,’ Mrs Blanche’s bracelets tingled. ‘I’m sure the girl you are talking about has almost done no such thing as you are accusing her of — I’m not done.’

Miriam’s eyes dropped back into her body like a pair of lead balloons. Slowly at first but surely as time ticked away.

‘Not our Miriam. My goodness, the accusations, Harold. And such filthy language! What would your dear father say if he heard you? Or your son? How can you talk like this?’

‘She’s a thief, Constance,’ the old man rubbed the corners of his lips. ‘And my son, God bless his soul, would tear her apart if he ever knew.’

The liver-spotted finger trembled in Miriam’s face again.

‘Limb from limb. It’s unpardonable what she took from us.’

Mrs Blanche shook her head, jewels tinging.

‘I’m sorry, Harold, about your son. But what you’re saying about this girl? You’re wrong. She would never do such a thing.’

God bless Constance Blanche’s defence, but when Harold opened his mouth for the last time that day —

‘Bloody cunt, is what she is.’

— Miriam’s body trembled from all the secrets she had uncovered over the years. The snooping, the spying, the theft, all of the invasion she had managed over the years rattled her bones.

Her soul snapped back like one of Virginia Lee’s too taught guitar strings, her eyes crashing back behind her gold-rimmed spectacles. Her teeth gnawed and sliced the skin of her forefinger.

The quiet tick of the clock clicked while her words rose and tumbled out her mouth like a fountain of stones.

Miriam clenched her fist next to her side and, clear as a whistle, said:

‘My grief will not be your gossip, you, you… you homeowner!’

Yes, she said “homeowner.”

The voice of Virginia Lee screeched to a stop. Mr Fire Eyes stood in the entrance, his face placid from her words.

Harold grew silent as Miriam’s words, a misspoken homophobic slur, crept from under Miriam’s teeth and over her lips to bounce against the beige walls.

‘What did you say to me, young lady?’

Miriam knew her selection of words was out of character, but so were her actions today, and as she came guns a-blazing she watched Mr Fire Eyes shimmer at the door in the bright morning light.

Yellow-and-silver tufts of hair flickered on Harold’s blossoming scalp. The air-con hissed and the fan buzzed.

‘I want to speak to your manager right this instant, lady, or so help me God –’

Miriam stood up and wrung her hands in her sweaty palms.

‘Shut up.’

Harold’s mouth seemed to drop right to his knees while Blanche gasped.

‘What did you say?’

‘I said shut up.’

‘Miriam.’

‘No, missus Blanche. My mother died today, missus Blanche. My mother died today and –’

Miriam snatched the sticky note out of the wastepaper basket and unrumpled what she had written, showing it to the stunned Harold.

‘– and there is no one that I can talk to!’

Miriam crumpled the paper again and threw the message in the old man’s face.

She never sweated like this before, not before lunch in any case, but this was different. The heavyset spinster felt her muscles pump underneath the red-and-blue uniform. Her temples throbbed. She knew her life was about to change, but she welcomed it. A scab ripped off skin.

‘Listen here, you –’

‘Filthy poop stain is what you are,’ Miriam said. ‘I did not ask to know your dirty little secrets but I will say it to the world because my grief will not be your gossip, Mister Harold Galloway. No, I will not be your gossip.’

The words poured out clearly and lightly, hard and bullet-like, the whites of her eyes shimmering like pearls. Harold stood while this young girl, angry and round, pushed her words out towards him.

Manager Daniel Crossly’s office blinds rustled again in the well-lit room. The silver panes flickered as a set of bespectacled eyes leered out.

‘I know what you do on your weekends, you,’ Miriam rolled the words out. ‘You filthy man. You homeowner!’

Harold said nothing, his jaw on the floor.

‘Miriam,’ Mrs Blanche said. ‘What’s gotten into you? What are you talkimg about?’

‘That’s right,’ Miriam smirked at the quiet Harold. ‘We all know. Even Missus Blanche behind you knows,’ she spat out a gruff giggle which rattled the old man’s quivering bones. ‘How’s that for a “mental degenerate”? How’s that boy in Durban doing? Tsego Makane, if I remember correctly. Xhosa name, isn’t it, Mister Galloway? Or a “non-white,” as you would say to your friends and family.’

Whop-whop-whop-whop, said the fan.

Harold trembled in his shoes. The veins on his arms and thighs were blue. Miriam imagined the old man’s penis becoming now hard not from excitement but from fear.

Mrs Blanche lowered her hands as she stared wide-eyed at the married man of 23 years.

‘What… what is she talking about, Harold? Why would Miriam say these things?’

Miriam pointed a finger at the silent, shaking man. The electricity of change took over her body.

‘He knows, Missus Blanche. That’s why he’s so quiet. Behind Missus Galloway’s back for over seven months now.’

‘I don’t know what this girl is talking about,’ Harold shook his head and turned towards the door. ‘This place is a bloody circus –’

‘“I love it when a black man ‘effs’ me missionary style. The feeling of your ‘c-word’–”’

Miriam did not want to say “fuck,” “cum,” or “asshole,” so she opted for “eff,” “c-word,” and “a-hole.”

‘“– making your brown-and-pink penis wet in my ‘a-hole.’”’

Harold Galloway, white and grey, stormed out the post office past a transparent Mr Fire Eyes. Constance Blanche stood in awe and watched Miriam sit back on her pneumatic chair.

‘I could not believe people spoke like this in letters. I just can’t believe it.’

Miriam spoke to herself as her heavyset arms rested on the counter. Her cold fingers rubbed the lenses of her gold-rimmed spectacles. She waited for the manager to storm out of his office. It did not take long.

Daniel yelled when he burst through the grey-and-white manager’s door.

‘Miriam! My office, now!’

He slammed the door and the silver panes rattled.

Constance Blanche held a hand over her mouth, jowls trembling, her eyes wide. The old woman turned and left the post office right behind Harold Galloway.

Miriam watched the lady go. She wondered if either Harold or Mrs Blanche ever saw the Mr Fire Eyes at the front door. Probably not.

Miriam smiled at the quiet post office. She knew she wouldn’t be fired today. A complaint had to be laid and she felt neither Daniel Crossly nor Harold Galloway would take that step for reasons of workload and embarrassment respectively. She just hoped that missus Constance Blanche would not be silly enough to make the complaint herself, but if that were to happen Bethesda’s secrets, all its excrement and filth, would soon come out gushing down the dusty roads, covering the residents in everyone else’s abject horror and disgust. Miriam had so much more to tell, Harold was just the first of many. The town could become clean from the release of the suppressed filth, she supposed. And whatever she knew would not be just her secrets anymore but everyone else’s. Peace. She was ready no matter what happened after today.

Miriam pushed herself off the hissing chair and searched her uniform pockets. She plucked out a coin and steadied the copper disk on top of her manicured thumbnails.

A quick flip for everyone’s fate. The copper glinted. Miriam called the sides and the consequences. Heads for this and tails for that. The coin tumbled in the air and rattled when it landed on the linoleum floor. It stopped. She smiled.

Tails. Decided.

Miriam’s gold-rimmed spectacles glistened in the morning light as she swung her hips towards the manager’s office. She was hungry. She wanted to have a small lunch and then take a nap at home. No one would bother her today. She would then go to the funeral parlour when the afternoon heat had died down.

Her gravel-like skin shone from the heat, her eyes bright and on fire.

Adrenalin, pride, and change. The forever changed.

The smell of fervour dangled in the air as the fan and air-con whopped and hissed their silent praise, Mr Fire Eyes gone, the only witnesses to the spinster’s shattering chrysalis.

©2018 Theo Volschenk. All rights reserved.