Miss Helen’s Magical World

An owl introduces Helen and her house in Nieu Bethesda.

Meet my friend Helen. She was born in a little Karoo town called Nieu Bethesda. There was not much going on in this town. But she made a whole world here. She even made me. And she named her house after me.

It was called ‘The Owl House’.

A young Helen wears men's clothes and has a carboard box on her head. The other girls wear dresses and look at her with disgust.

Most of Helen’s nine brothers and sisters were grown up and gone by the time she arrived. But she still had her sisters Annie and Alida.

Helen didn’t have many friends in the village, but she didn’t mind.

From the start, Helen did things differently from most people.

Helen reads a postcard. It has pictures of camels and princes and pyramids.

After her sisters left home, Helen lived alone with her parents. She loved her mother, but she hated her father. Everyone agreed he was a very strange man.

Her big sister Alida travelled all over the world. One day she sent Helen a postcard from Egypt.

In her mind Helen saw princes and pyramids and camels in the sand.

Helen reads a poetry book. She reads the line: "Ah moon of my delight who knowst no wane..."

As she grew older, Helen read more stories of faraway places. She especially liked poems from Persia in the Middle East.

She dreamed of visiting the ocean one day. She kept a seashell on her bedside table, and imagined she could hear the sound of waves inside it.

But of course, owls were always her favourite things of all!

Helen leaves her classroom with a man. She is carrying a suitcase with clothes hanging out of it.

Helen loved books and stories so much that she decided to become a teacher. She was very good at it too. But then she met Johannes Pienaar. He was also a teacher, and a writer and actor.

He convinced her to run away with him.

Helen returns home with her suitcase.

Helen and Johannes got married. They travelled to many different towns, teaching and performing plays. Helen thought she might start a family like her sisters had done. But it was not to be. She and her husband were always fighting.

When Helen’s mother became very sick, she decided it was time to go back home.

Helen holds up a burning candle.

Helen was not happy. Her mother was so sick, and her father was so grumpy. She kept to herself. People thought she was strange.

The night her mother died, Helen kept a candle burning beside her bed all night.

With the help of that little light, Helen didn’t feel so afraid of the dark.

One of Helen's helpers creates an owl sculpture in her garden. There is a sign in the background which reads: "This is my world."

Helen decided she wanted brightness in her life. She began by changing the space around her.

She needed helpers. Three men from the village, Jonas Adams, Piet van der Merwe, and Koos Malgas, made the things she imagined out of wire and cement.

She filled her back garden with interesting creatures. There were sphinxes and camels, mermaids and cats. And lots and lots of owls! She called it her camel yard. On the fence she made a wire sign.

It said: ‘This is my world’.

Helen sleeps by the light of the many lanterns she has created.

During the day Helen made sculptures. At night, she practised catching light.

She collected glasses and mirrors, candles and lamps. Anything that would shine.

She put lanterns in every room. Mirrors caught and reflected the light. She covered the walls in glittering glass so that they could shine too.

After Helen’s father died, she had the house to herself. Each night she slept in a different room.

She would always choose the one with the best view of the moon and the stars.

Helen stands amongst her sculptures in the garden. She is smiling and holding a cup of tea. The owl sits on her shoulder.

The people of Nieu Bethesda would walk past Helen’s garden and marvel at the creatures in it.

Some of the village children brought her glass bottles for her sculptures and called her ‘Miss Helen’. She always thanked them with sweets.

Others were not so friendly. They called her names and threw stones on her roof.

Miss Helen spent all her money on glass and cement. She lived on bread and black tea.

In her diary she wrote: “In my loneliness I am happy.”

Helen is an old woman. She sits in her house with the garden sculptures visible through the window.

The garden grew and grew, until there was hardly space left for any more creatures.

Miss Helen was tired now. Her hands were stiff and sore. Her eyes were going blind from working with tiny bits of glass.

She wasn’t afraid of being alone. But she was still afraid of the dark. And her world was getting darker and darker. She knew that soon she wouldn’t be able to see anything at all.

Helen flies into the sky with the owl.

But when she closed her eyes for the last time, Miss Helen didn’t see darkness. She saw the sun and the moon and the stars. She saw wise men and mermaids, camels and cats, acrobats and owls with big brown glittering glass eyes.

And we still stand here today, just the way she left us, in the garden she made, looking East.