My closest friends weren’t sure what to get me for my birthday. They knew all I wanted was a baby so they got creative. (No, they didn’t kidnap a newborn, although they assure me that they did consider it.)
Instead they organised and sponsored a weekend away in Clarens for Mike and I. A weekend dedicated to conceiving. Not (necessarily) a dirty weekend, but to visit the fertility cave there. How they even knew about the cave, I can’t guess. Mandie is on every contraceptive known to man and mammal. She was conceived while her mother was on the pill, so she takes no chances. While she is really good with babies, if you ask her if she wants one she slaps you with a glare that would freeze lava.
So last night we packed our bags and headed out to the Free State. I would never say no to a weekend away, and Clarens is so beautiful with its golden mountains, but I don’t hold much hope for a miracle from some dirty cave that (I’m guessing) someone once thought looked like a giant vagina.
But we have gone from ‘Not Trying’ to ‘Trying Absolutely Everything’ and if that includes a punani grotto, then I’m in. My only objective this weekend is to have fun, and an open mind.
The pilgrimage didn’t start well. It’s not that the cave isn’t well signposted, it’s not signposted AT ALL. We drove around with no clue where we were going and I couldn’t help feel that it was a cruel and apt metaphor for our fertility journey so far.
At first I couldn’t bear to ask someone. I was sure no one would know, anyway. But we were about to give up and I couldn’t go back to Jo’burg without having visited the cave. The first few people regarded us with confusion, and vague suspicion, (Fertili-what-what?) But eventually someone knew what we were talking about and pointed us in the right direction.
We finally found a little sand road that we had missed the first 23 times we had driven past. We picked up some pedestrians who we bribed to show us the way. I was worried they may be axe-murderers, leading us to a dead-end in order to rob us of our meagre possessions. The trip included going through a gate that warned you to not enter. We were, like, ‘Are you sure this right?’ and the guys were like ‘Yes!’ and we were, like, ‘We are so going to get axed.’
We pulled into a makeshift parking lot in the middle of a huge herd of sheep. Two or three cars, but not a cave or another person in sight. We watched the sheep for a while, not sure what to do, when we saw people walk past us and making their way up the hill. That’s when we realised that we would be working hard for our little bit of fertility magic: we had to hike to get to the cave.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Perhaps something like the virility cave we saw in Thailand: a short, easy walk on a beach and voila! a huge cave full of phallic symbols. You giggle and admire them while someone chops open a coconut cocktail for you.
The hike was long and steep, and we weren’t dressed for it, so we were hot and a bit grumpy on our way up. I was surprised at how many people were also walking the path. They were dressed in church gear and carried staffs, so we guessed the caves held more enchantment than just of the fertility variety.
Eventually we reached the top and hopscotched over a river to get to the cave, and it was as though we had crossed into another world. It wasn’t as much a cave as it was a hobbit warren. Built into the recesses were tiny little interconnected dwellings with tiny little hobbit-sized doors (I kept my eyes peeled for hobbits, but no such luck). Instead, there were ordinary-looking humans walking around, among goats, dogs, cats and chickens. The closest thing I could find to a hobbit was a sweet little boy, around 3 years old, with an easy smile and dusty feet. He followed us, pointing things out. He let me pick him up and carry him while we explored. His parents didn’t seem to be around, and I briefly considered taking him home with us, day-dreamed about looking after him. Then I remembered that kidnapping was illegal and I imagine that if getting pregnant outside of jail was this tricky, the chances of it happening while locked up might be even trickier. It would take a lot of planning to get Mike to pay a conjugal visit at exactly the right time of the month.
‘Warden, please, I have to see my husband right now. Like, right now. In the next hour at the latest.’
(I facepalm myself for not thinking ahead and ordering KFC for her lunch today).
‘Er, no. Get back to pulling out those blackjacks.’
‘You don’t understand. It’s my window. (Whispers:) My ovulation window.’
(Warden slaps some sense into me.)
The hobbit houses were immaculate, and swept to within an inch of their lives. This wasn’t some kind of (inconvenient) place to squat, it was clearly revered as some kind of holy place. There was a shrine, oily with years of molten wax, where we said a quick Hail-Mary or some-such. I’ve never been good with religion or bowing to man-made edifices, but I was wearing my Open Mind. After looking around in fascination and petting the odd smelly goat, we were shown to the Fertility Lady’s place. She made us wait outside while she did what I guessed was some preparatory voodoo.
When she was ready for us, she called us in. We’re not the shortest couple: we had to make ourselves hobbit-sized by folding ourselves in half and walking in on our knees. It was clearly a place of miracles: the fact that we all fitted in such a tiny space was a special kind of sorcery.
The interior was dim, cramped, and completely pimped. An array of fertility icons gleamed in the candlelight. The lady started off by chanting and dusting me (with what I guess was a feather duster with special powers and not a regular one from the local Shoprite/Checkers) and singing a bit. Then she put her hands on my stomach and pressed quite hard. Mike and I couldn’t look at each other, afraid to offend her by laughing. She picked up a picture of a (white) mother nursing a baby, in a silver frame. I wondered if only white people came to ask her for help. She cradled the frame like an infant, rocking it, and kissed it, then passed it to me to do the same, making kissy noises. I cradled it, and it made me feel like I was a child again, playing in an (especially eccentric) friend’s dollhouse.
Next came the really fun part: She produced an old, scratched plastic bottle (Sprite? Stoney?) filled with dirty water. Mike looked worried, but I wasn’t nervous. I thought she might sprinkle it around us like holy water. Holy Fertility Cave Water. But it turned out that Mike had good reason to be twitchy. She poured some out into an enamel mug and passed it to me, motioning for me to drink it. I thanked her and pretended to take a sip, making sure my lips weren’t anywhere near the filthy stuff, but she had clearly seen this trick before and got really bossy about me drinking it all. I looked for somewhere I could tip it out but the place was so tiny and she was staring right at me so there was no way I wouldn’t be busted. At her insistence, I took a sip (I know! Hepatitis C. Cholera. There would be no getting pregnant now. But what choice did I have?). It was ice cold and tasted of sand and candle wax. I shudder to think of where it came from and was sure that I’d be rolling around in agony with some kind of vicious stomach bug that night. I was suddenly sure that this woman wanted me to puke all my evil infertile guts out. And I had fallen for it! Dammit!
Fortunately (for me) she then turned her attention to Mike. She took some of the freezing water and, wait for it, POURED IT INTO HIS EAR. He wasn’t expecting it (obviously), and certainly wasn’t expecting it to be so damn cold, and he screamed. A proper scream that reverberated on the close clay walls. Oh my God, I laughed so much I almost wet my shorts. I laughed and laughed. I was almost hysterical. Trying to not laugh made me laugh more. He tried to shake the water out of his eustachian tube (this is where his surfing experience should have come in handy) but the magic (read: filthy) water was there to stay. After all the commotion she still wanted to pour water in his other ear. And he let her. And he screamed again. I was finished.
Then it was my turn again, giving Mike a moment to shake and smack his head like someone deranged. She gave me the whole bottle of water, told me to drink it all (thankfully not right there and then, but rather as homework) and then put a shiny plastic tiara on my head. I will never forget that picture in my mind of Mike trying to get the water out of his ears and me, in a tiara, cuddling and kissing a picture of some stranger’s baby, trying to stifle my maniacal laughing. If it had happened anywhere else I’m sure we would have been given straitjackets and our own padded cells.
At last we were let out into the sunshine, and we scrabbled in our pockets for cash. We weren’t expecting an actual person or ritual, just an old cave, so we didn’t bring our wallets on the hike. We only had a couple of notes and coins (certainly not enough for a miracle, we were sure) and handed them over sheepishly. I think she had expected more, explaining that the money was for ‘the angels’, but we didn’t have anything else to give.
The little boy had waited outside for us and was happy to see us again, but when he realised we were going home he started crying. We both gave him a hug and told him not to cry, which made him cry more.
We said goodbye and ran down the hill, our spirits high from all the strangeness and laughing. We passed a bliksem-drunk man on his way up, tried to give him a wide berth, but that didn’t stop him from shouting some slurry profanities in our direction. Nothing like a dirty drunk to bring you back down to earth.
In the car Mike was, like, ‘I can’t believe you drank that siff water.’
I was, like, ‘Me neither!’
‘That was not a good idea.’
‘I think I’ve got Hepatitis.’
‘You’ll be lucky if that’s all you’ve got,’ he said, and I agreed, and we laughed some more as we tried to not run over any sheep on our way out.
-- excerpt from 'The Underachieving Ovary' by JT Lawrence
Image credit: Ariana Prestes, Unsplash.com