I now have to constantly harness every ounce of strength, both physical and emotional, so as to not lash out at anyone within arms length – why does it seem as if everyone feels the need to stand so close that you can feel their breath on your neck, in your face? What happened to personal space, the fight or flight zone or just simply not crowding another person.
It’s been five months, 11 days, 22 hours and 13 minutes. The scene that was set and played out then, is now locked in a loop that intrudes, attaching itself to my being, when I least expect it.
With my home situated in a remote rural village without electricity, a weekly trip to town is required. This meant taking the morning taxi and it delivered me in town bright and early to stock up on groceries. I was crossing the street to avoid a group of unruly youths on my way to the pharmacy when out of the corner of my eye I see a man put a cigarette to his lips, the match poised above the striking edge of the box…
…the scratch of a matchstick being lit filters through the layers of the first hour of deep sleep after a relaxing yet exhausting day...
I had taken a local taxi from my home in the village to the guest house turn-off about 20km away, strolled up the winding access road while taking in the unspoilt, natural beauty of the forest around me. Everything was so green, so vivid and butterflies flitted gracefully from flower to flower as the Touracos called and the Ring-necked Turtle Doves cooed. Approaching a bend in the road I was suddenly confronted by one of the guest-house dogs, a Bouvier who, having recognised me charged in for a hug, a love and a bit of lemon grass I had picked for the occasion.
It had been several years since my friend and I had seen each other; my husband had done some renovations at her guest house and when he passed away we lost touch. So we spent the afternoon catching up on news while pottering in the gardens, checking that the seedlings, which had been newly transplanted, were well watered and weeding as we picked salad-ingredients for the evening meal. A quick shower made short business of the garden grime, after which we prepared and cooked our food. Eating, drinking, cleaning up and making nonsensical chatter over coffee felt good and we were both relaxed as we each settled into an armchair, gazed into the night and enjoyed the screech of crickets and cicadas, while plumbing the depths of life and its meaning, finally saying our goodnights an hour before midnight.
…raising my head off the pillows I see a man hunched over the soft yellow pool of match-flame light at the door to the room and as wakefulness washes over me I realise it is not part of a dream. The flame flickers out and for a moment the pitch-blackness of the night engulfs everything. And suddenly he’s there, next to the bed I had moments before been asleep in, he’d switched on the bedside lamp, half-smiling in the startling brightness he tells me to sh-sh-sh before he grabs me and pushes me back down on the bed, and I notice the stained and dirty-looking blade of a knife in his right hand as it glints in the lamp light...
I remember thinking at the time that I had seen him somewhere, had been introduced to him at some point … and he recognised me, I’m sure he did, yet I can still not place him.
…I watch him as he half-shrugs, as if it doesn’t matter or he doesn’t have a choice. I start shaking my head, saying that this is not right, something is very wrong here and I demand: “What are you doing in my room?” It’s as if everything is waterlogged, heavy and slow. I come fully awake and realising this, I see the look in his eyes shift from ‘let me see what I can take’, to ‘kill’, and then several years of self-defence-training kick in…
Growing up with two brothers, one a year younger and the other two years my senior, meant learning how to defend myself against a team-tackle by my siblings while they’d try and hold me down to tickle me till I either cried out or sobbed hysterically (or promised them all my pocket money or sweets, or to do their chores). I had learned early on to pull my knees up to my chest and hold my brothers at bay by kicking, (legs are longer than arms), till I could either be rescued or do some damage and this reflex served me well into my 10th year, when my mother enrolled me at the local Judo club for self-defence training.
Earning my brown belt took many years of training but once married and with children of my own exercising seemed to be mostly made up of gardening and later, walking the beaches and forests wherever I found them. At 51 I was not really out of shape or unfit, just out of practice.
… I had managed to draw my legs up between us reflexively when my attacker struck and as the knife plunges into my breastbone, then glances off my collarbone, I try to kick and fight him off. He changes his grip on the knife to slash at my throat, his hold on me easing just a fraction in the process, and I manage to snap my legs straight, slamming them into him and sending him sprawling off the bed, onto the floor.
It’s all the opportunity I need and when he scrambles up and lunges at me with the knife, I’m on my knees on the bed, ready for him while my sensei’s voice echoes “fight the man, not the weapon”. The satisfaction of seeing his eyes almost pop in surprise when I grab his knife-hand, immobilise it under my body, grab him by the throat and push him down on the bed…
Trying to regain some normality after the attack and a weeklong recovery with family, I return home to a routine I had previously found both comforting and rewarding. It’s a beautiful, sunny day when the neighbour’s children come over to play while learning handcrafts. The youngest is a year old; she is past cute, learning to speak English while boldly holding on to my skirt as I gather paper, scissors, glue and paints. Her name is Silula (it means ‘easy’ and being the youngest of eight children I’m sure her mother found the birth relatively simple after all the practice she’d gotten through the previous seven births), and the little one insists on climbing me like a tree whenever she can gain a foothold. She’s very agile for her age, skimming up my back as I kneel down to retrieve some sticky tape from the bottom shelf of the book-case. Once attached to my hip, she quickly snuggles into my armpit, hoping to not be noticed and loving the elevated perch from where she can direct her siblings in their crafting endeavours.
The dog comes charging in to see who’s visiting and Silula grabs for my neck, squealing as the dog nips playfully at her feet. Panic surges through me as she wraps her arms tightly around my neck, grabbing at my hair in the process and I watch her eyes widen as I struggle to control the urge to lash out, run, fight…
...he tries to push me away and I exert force, his puzzled expression turns to panic and we are both stunned to realise that I will take his life as easily as he would have taken mine. Not only am I stronger, the element of surprise - having a victim fight back and be not only willing but capable of killing, rather than be killed - gives me an edge over my attacker. And when I address him in his own language, snarling what I intend to do to him, I watch his panic turn to fear...
I am ashamed and terrified – of myself! The sure knowledge that I am no better than this animal has changed everything. The way I look at the world is tainted, the way I look at myself distorted and my privacy and personal space have become treasures to protect and hide from the world, lest someone invade and threaten me again.
…Squirming his way out of my grip he runs into the bathroom, bewildered at not finding a way out he turns for the door as I lunge and fall, legs entangled in bloodied sheets, and watch as he grabs my laptop bag and backpack off the chair, flings open the door and disappears over the balustrade at the edge of the veranda, into the bushes in front of my room. My chest throbs dully and the side of my face and neck are on fire …
Councillors, therapists, family and friends have all, in one way or another, managed to help me fight the fear and it has subsided somewhat but now, now I tread softly instead of boisterously bouncing, now I furtively glance at faces and keep to myself instead of trustingly engaging strangers in conversation, now I sleep light and investigate every sound and movement instead of resting my weary self in readiness for my daily living.
And under everything lies a new self-knowledge, a loathing of what I have become – I am no better than that wanna-be rapist and murderer! When threatened I now know I will kill, in self-defence or to prevent a repeat of what happened during the attack. I WILL NOT BE A VICTIM AGAIN!
Having made the decision to not let the ‘incident’ become more than a life-lesson, to learn, gain something positive from all of this, seems simple enough but it seems I am paying lip-service to my intentions and I find that I withdraw and isolate myself at every and any opportunity. I shut the doors, close the windows so no-one will think I am home, simply sitting around either vacantly staring into space or reading to escape to a different reality. My morning hike through the forest to the beach when I need to get out or find some inspiration seems a lifetime away.
Having made the morning forest walk to the beach on a regular basis over the last few years, it beckons every time I am outside and I eventually give in, dress for walking and tentatively start on the footpath I have grown to love, armed with my Taser, walking stick that resembles a caveman’s club and pepper spray in my back pocket – just in case. The dog, sensing something is not quite right but unsure what to do stands at the gate, watching me enter the forest with a half-wag of her tail and a quizzical look. I had barely gone 50 steps, revelling in the new shoots evident after heavy rain a few weeks ago, the crunch of dry leaves underfoot and the musty smells of the decomposing forest floor, when I suddenly hear something or someone crashing through the bushes towards me and I panic, racing ahead while branches whip at my face and roots try and snag my feet.
…the sound of my attacker fleeing through the bushes, the wet stickiness of my own blood on my hands and the blackness of the night seem surreal. But then, as reality kicks in and my body reels from adrenalin and blood loss, I find the strength to draw breath and scream: “HEEEEELP, SOMEONE HELP ME!” over and over, till the dogs are around my feet and I stumble up the stairs to the parking area where the sensor light has been triggered. It half blinds me and the darkness is mercifully banished and I watch as my friend charges towards me with her handgun, which refuses to go off, held aloft…
We were fortunate in having the police arrive within half an hour. It felt as if we’d been invaded there were so many of them, each assuring me that they would do everything in their power to find the perpetrator. Yet no flashlights were lit or bushes beaten to see if he was hiding somewhere close by waiting for all the commotion to die down, so ‘just sitting down and relaxing’ was not an option. I was convinced he was out there, watching and waiting for an opportunity to finish the job. I could, after all, identify him; his face seared into my memory as if with a branding iron.
I use the word fortunate because the guest house is remotely situated and midnight and later seems the best time to perpetrate crime. As we gathered in the silence after the police departed we all agreed that the response had been unusually speedy as some crime scenes in the area were known to only have been visited by the police only several days after the fact. ‘No vehicles’ or ‘no-one to send out to the scene of the crime’ being common responses. Perhaps because we are women and one is a business owner in an industry that can ill afford this kind of publicity?
The neighbourhood does, however, also have some caring citizens who stay in touch with each other after dark, checking in via cell phone and landline, especially since my friend and I live alone, and when my friend had contacted them quite hysterically, they all flooded the police with calls of the attack, urging them to respond.
Painkillers, coffee, friends milling about wanting to help and watching the sunrise is what I remember in the hours after the attack and returning from being stitched up. And of course the uncontrollable shaking and replay of seemingly random snatches of the terror I had just lived through.
Someone took me to the health centre for medical care with me insisting all the way that I was fine, I just needed to bath and get rid of the bloodied clothes I was still wearing. There was a scramble to remove the iodine a student nurse had started swabbing onto the wounds once the nursing staff found out I was deadly allergic to iodine but the sting of the anti-tetanus jab in my arm seemed irrelevant when compared to the consequences the dirty blade the attacker had wielded could cause if left untreated.
The stab wound to my chest had seemed random, until the policeman who came to the centre to take my statement explained that it was aimed at my heart – a death stroke that, if punched through the breastbone while the victim is lying down, will penetrate the heart.
It was when I was asked to remove my jewellery that I found the reason I was still alive. The knife had, instead of penetrating the breastbone, glanced off my crystal and the second stab had seen the knife become entangled in the chain holding the crystal. Lucky? No, I believe ‘protected’ more aptly describes how I survived.
Three stitches in my chest, five just under my collarbone and another eight from my cheek to just under my jaw were a constant reminder that my reality had been drastically affected.
We managed to track the attacker’s flight path once we had daylight to search by; we even found my son’s passport that I had been keeping for him where it had fallen out of my backpack as the attacker scaled the fence. Footprints led us to bushes across the road and I felt somewhat apprehensive that he had in fact been waiting around while the police were busy ‘attending to the matter’.
An identikit was compiled and distributed, the laptop serial number circulated and I must have spoken to dozens of villagers, all to no avail. A suspect was eventually found but before he could be brought in for questioning he was run over by a car and last I heard he was in intensive care. The man who attacked me may still be out there, somewhere, but life goes on and time heals, even though initially it seems only superficial, that is just the scars and even though the wounds run deeper than just skin-deep, the whole process takes time.
I am better now. Still fearful, scanning faces looking for him and still carrying all sorts of weapons with which to scare off any would be perpetrators but mostly I am wary. Suspicious of strangers, of silence, of noise and crowds, I don’t know if I can ever again be the carefree soul who wandered the forests and beaches alone looking for shapes and textures as only nature can craft them.
But life is short and way too precious to dwell on the negative.
There is a lot of living I would still like to do and even though it is now more difficult and it will take time to regain my freedom, I also know that I can have no more ordinary days. Every moment of every day has to count. Every effort has to be made to make each day extraordinary because when it happens that you walk away from an attack that comes close to extinguishing your life force, you have to be stronger than before. You have to believe it won’t happen again and mostly, you have to believe that the life you have been given is meant for bigger and better than what you have attained and you can only live one extraordinary day at a time, with every ounce of your being.
And so I celebrate my living moment by moment, banishing the thoughts of what may have been ordinary and replacing them with what might be extraordinary.