'It's strange,' Maria mused, as she sat on the verandah of her cottage, 'after fifty years of marriage, Peter, with his severe back problem, remains positive and eager to face the old age, while I, with my healthy body, suffer from depression and cannot face growing old.'
Day by day she sat there facing the coastal bush. Peter, her husband usually sat next to her doing his crossword puzzle, or planning a new improvement to their cottage. He had bought it soon after his retirement from the bank. It was situated on the outskirts of a sea resort in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), and it was close to the beach. It was a dream come true for him.
As she sat there on the verandah, she could hear the distant roar of the waves hitting the rocky shore. The noise made her restless. She got into the habit of walking along the beach during stormy days and used to cry loudly imploring God to take away this darkness which was engulfing more and more of her. It made her a miserable, good for nothing woman who was unable to function properly. Even her own children left their home because of her. Only Peter remained, he just accepted her moods and stopped interfering because she refused to talk about it or seek help. She was on her own, and had to deal with the voices in her head. The voices told her that she was a coward and must save herself by getting away from it all. She hated the voices, but could not get rid of them. Peter was of no help to her. He was such a soft man, with his gentle voice and imploring looks. He just wanted peace and quiet, and no problems.
She got up abruptly, and announced that she was going for a walk.
'Be careful, darling,' he called after her.
'If he really cared for me,' she thought with resentment, ' he would at least make an effort to come for a walk with me; he is probably happy to be rid off me for a while.' She went inside and collected her little backpack. She always took few things with her, such as a bottle with water, a packet of biscuits and a sweater. Sometimes when fancy took her, she spent a whole day on the beach, or explored nearby places. She had a secret place she had never told Peter about. It was high up above the bush, on a rocky outcrop. There was a small well sheltered cave by some indigenous trees and shrubs, with a well hidden entrance. It seemed (to Maria) that nobody had ever discovered it before. It was an ideal hide away; she enjoyed staying there, and having the feeling of disappearing from everybody.
As she walked down to the beach, the Ocean became louder and more menacing. The white horses rushed in a fury to attack the shore, and the wind grew in strength. Maria became agitated as she felt as if she were too being attacked by the forces of nature.
Then came the rain and she looked for the path to the cave.
She was wet and exhausted when she finally reached the familiar looking rocks; and was looking forward to having a good rest. All of a sudden she smelled smoke. It was coming from the direction of her cave. She could not believe that somebody was there. She crawled cautiously on all fours until she reached the opening of the cave, she peered inside. There was an old man squatting next to a little fire built of twigs and leaves. She was so angry that she had forgotten to be careful. She shouted at him foolishly, 'This is my cave. What are you doing here?'
The man looked startled and then grinned at her. His face was old and wrinkled, but his teeth were remarkably white.
'Lady, this cave is as much yours as it is mine. Nobody owns it, I grew up here. I used to come here as a boy, but it's hard for me to climb up now. I'm an old man, 'Madala (in Xhosa).'
Maria burst into tears. She was so disappointed. Her secret place was no more. She had no hiding place. The old man looked at her bewildered, but said nothing. When she stopped crying he remarked, 'Women always cry when they are angry, but afterwards they get better and they smile.'
'But I can't,' Maria shouted, 'I have had too many disappointments in my life,' and then she began to tell the bewildered old man about her life in the orphanage when her mother deserted her, and about Peter who did not love her anymore, and her children who had left her.
She went on and on and the old man just nodded and nodded. Did he understand what she was saying? She did not care a hoot. She had this urge to talk and talk, and she did it as if she enjoyed her pain and was reluctant to stop talking about it.
The cave grew very dark and there was just a soft murmur of the waves down below; a lonely owl hooted once or twice, and the old man just snored and snored.
Maria was angry no more, just tired. She put her sweater under her head, and fell asleep.
In the morning she woke up feeling refreshed and hungry. She shared her biscuits and water with the old man, before she left she thanked him for listening to her. 'You have helped me come to my senses. I was in a bad way.'
The old man nodded wisely. 'When I was younger, I too had to fight my demons, and it was hard. I lived on the street and my people were dying all around me. I was scared and lonely. But when you're old, even the demons run away from you, and you're free. It's not bad being old, because you need so little, a little food, a shelter, sometimes a little love, and if you lucky, someone to care for you.
That morning Maria felt strangely energized as she hurried back home. On her way she met a few police constables who were combing the bush, but she did not have the time or inclination to ask them what they were doing. There was a police car outside their cottage, she had a dreadful feeling that something had happened to Peter. But as she knocked at the door he was there, and on seeing her he opened his arms and broke down crying. He shouted, 'My wife is back. My wife has come back to me'