aUsumbura: the story of a classmate of All Burp’s, late 1950’s

 

THE DISCOVERY

broadcast on the World Service of the BBC

 

“Do you know Anastasia Filopulos?” Jose asked me once during recess, “the most popular lady in town. Very olle’ olle’! Want an introduction? Be my guest!”

The following Sunday, a little before dusk, Jose and I rode in the direction of the old airstrip. Exhilarated by the race, panting like a pair of bellows, we leaned our scooters against the obese trunk of a euphorbia tree. The area was sparsely inhabited: four houses, perhaps five. The one nearest us looked like those tired colonial beauties which, in spite of the whitewash, had lost their bloom – cracked frontage, rusty mosquito net, slabs of plaster crumbling off the walls, columns throttled by voracious bougainvillaea. To the east, the brush, ubiquitous, honey-combing the Lake’s purple horizon; to the south, a hedge of rickety sprouts planted by order of the municipality. Translucent clouds wrinkled the sky and slowly faded out as it grew darker.

“Ssst . . . here she comes.”

Squatting in a ditch, Jose and I kept watch. The woman was wearing a tight-fitting dress whose neckline gaped deep into her bosom. She stooped over the flower-bed of dahlias. I could see her hair shining in the twilight – pitch black earphones, somewhat old-fashioned and ludicrous for a person of her build. She had inviting round breasts and a waist so contrastingly fine that whenever she moved I imagined myself reaching out to her, bending her body in two as if it were a stem. That sudden overpowering sensation scared me. The only wish I had now was to get on my scooter and scram.

“Come back, you nut! Do you want to spoil everything?”

I obeyed like an automaton. Thorns lacerated my stomach, valves closed up and slackened in turn the way sponges cling to corals. Why on earth did I come to this place? Why must I always comply with Jose’s whims? I suddenly shuddered; it was the buzz of an insect. My imagination broke loose. Where had I heard that red ants could eat you up alive, and that before you knew, a flock of vultures hovered above your head; that a boa constrictor could swallow two young roebucks in one gulp, choking them by the sole pressure of its jaws? Had I been chasing moonbeams the day father ran after that hideous iguana which I had spotted behind the wire net of our hen house?

A swish in the grass. This time I was not dreaming. It crept under my feet.

“Let’s go Jose; I’m not interested in that Fili …”

“Fi-lo-pu-Ios, I’ve told you already. Can’t you keep still for a minute?”

The woman threw out her chest, relishing the complicities of darkness. She stroked her lips unchastely, caressed the upper part of her body, underlining its curves; then, turning her back on us, she slowly walked up the stairs that led to the verandah. All shadows had dimmed except for the pale blue halo cast by a solitary street lamp. Not far off, the moon shone, grinning like a complacent clown.

“Ready Antonio, now is the time, let’s go!”

Jose was about to jump out of the ditch when we heard the purring of a motor.

“A car! Damn it! Who could that be? See, I told you she was popular.”

Headlights on, the automobile pulled into the driveway and parked under the thick foliage of a mango tree.

” Ha ha, the dame was expecting someone.”

I held my breath. Jose couldn’t have noticed it. What I was about to witness would never have crossed my mind if it hadn’t been for him. And for a split second I believed Jose had premeditated the whole thing. But no. He didn’t seem to recognize the visitor. I wanted to scream. I felt a burning pain down in my plexus. Like a volcanic eruption that spreads its nacreous fluid evenly, inexorably around its crater. My whole body stiffened: mass of nerves locked and intertwined, hard as a clenched fist. Yes, that was our family Peugeot all right, and the man who stepped out of it was none other than my father.

 

A week after the “incident” I found out that Anastasia Filopulos operated a beauty parlor downtown, and what’s more, that she had commissioned father to build her an an-

nex. I was resolved to blackmail her, whatever the cost. To create a scandal, even if it meant that our name should be tarnished; to hell with the business, the family reputation! For in my eyes, this relationship was an insult to the memory of our beloved Elena.

Thus, late one afternoon, I went to my “victim’s” house. Standing on the porch, I hesitated for a while, then pulled the bell. A little girl came to the door. She was slender and wary. Her look resembled that of a frightened doe. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something in the child’s face bothered me, something minute, almost imperceptible, like a flicker of light in a thunder storm. Our paths had never crossed, yet I recognized an attitude, a certain expression, or so I thought.

” May I help you, Sir?”

“Mrs. Filopulos lives here, doesn’t she?”

No sooner had I put this question to her than she disappeared, lithe shadow slipping through the bay window.

I then overheard snatches of conversation:

“Mummy, it’s for you.”

“At this hour, who could it be …?

“ … a boy … no, a young man.”

So, Anastasia Filopulos had a daughter. For some odd reason that idea puzzled me. I introduced myself. At first, the lady frowned. But soon, the smile of bewilderment gave way to a gesture of lackadaisical familiarity:  “Antonio! Well I never! What lucky chance brings you here?”

“Huh … it’s just that… I wanted to have a talk with you.”

“How nice, and so … unexpected. Come in!”

A curtain made of wooden beads rustled as we entered the living room, we then passed a hallway that looked like a boudoir. Walls half bleached. Sweet smells of almonds and aniseed. The ornaments were limited to a still life of doubtful taste and a heavy rococo dish above the mantlepiece – evidently false. Embroidered cushions scattered on a settee covered with crimson velvet. Three wicker chairs, and in the center of the room, a nest of tables. To give the place a final touch of Mediterranean ambiance, there were these gaudy braids knotted around every leg of furniture, from the middle up.

“Oh, exclaimed the hostess, this is Jasmina, my daughter”; then, addressing the little girl, she added:  “Go and shake Antonio’s hand, darling. You’ve seen his daddy several times: the tall gentleman who is building our annex.”

“Mr. Romano?”

“Right!”, she said with a high pitch in her voice so as to prevent the child from commenting.

I stared at Jasmina. The more I watched her, the more uncomfortable I became. That uptilted nose, those grey crescents under the lids, that jutting chin. A thought suddenly lashed across my mind: father! Oh, God. It couldn’t be. The whole purpose of my visit, the plans so meticulously concocted, All that was meaningless now.

“What is it that you wanted to tell me, Antonio?”

My heart started pounding like crazy. I wished it turned into a time bomb and put an end to this unbearable situation. Hostile thoughts sparked in my mind. Then hatred. At first I didn’t realize who they were directed at. Anastasia, the mistress of Mario Romano? My father? Or myself?

I shot an answer, the first one I could think of:  “Just came to see that room you’re having renovated.”

“With pleasure. Actually, it’s an annex. Quite a big one too. And very well exposed. I’m waiting for the workers to tile the floor on Monday.”

 

After the so-called inspection we returned to the living-room. Little Jasmina never opened her mouth, except when she presented me with the bonbonniere of Turkish delights. Then for the rest of the time, she remained seated, casting an occasional smile at both of us, looking somewhat spared, out of place, a stranger in her house. A stranger like me, her HALF-BROTHER.


 

b

Africa, another true story

BEYOND THE GREAT WATER

 

first appeared in Short Story International (USA)

 

Having done his homework and fulfilled the household chores, Ilongo forked the crossbar of his Belgian-made bicycle and pedaled his way along the footpath that snaked through the tall grass.  The rain had stopped and he breathed in the thick, pea-scented air, letting it slowly, sensuously, seep into his lungs as if it were an elixir.

No sooner had the tires of the Flandria hugged the asphalt than Ilongo gathered speed.  He cleaved the atmosphere and spread his arms wing-like, shifting the weight of his hips in a regular sway so as to keep his balance, ready for an imaginary takeoff.  He could now clearly view the lake with the fawn-tinted mountain range kneeling on the opposite bank like a multi-humped lioness.  Ilongo often dreamed of hovering above the dozing beast so that he could vie with Mungu in the daily task of ministering to his earthly creatures, a task which did not preclude occasional outbursts of wrath, such as the lightning that struck a neighboring village the other day, for how else would people be reminded of Mungu’s presence?

Cycling towards the airdrome was the lad’s favorite pastime.  He would watch the kitenge-clad women pick cotton while, close to a shed, boys barely older than he pressed the fluffy white bolls into wicker baskets.  On the other side of the road stretched a paddy-field where other women toiled, bent over, their ankles deep in the water.  Ilongo felt exhilarated at the sight of such industriousness.

Not long ago the schoolmaster had lectured on the land, its produce, stressing the importance of coffee in the nation’s economy.  He’d explained that both arabica and robusta beans were of such high grade that the bulk was exported to the United States of America, bringing in return much needed foreign currency.  This, to Ilongo, had been somewhat of a revelation, for America was the country where Babo Paul Leroy Smith

lived.  Baba Paul was Ilongo’s foster father, thanks to whom the lad was encouraged to pursue his schooling and to learn – later on – a useful profession.  When, in one of his letters, Baba Paul had asked whether he already had an idea of what he wanted to do in the future, llongo mentioned the civil service and spoke of Uncle Tambe.  Uncle Tambe, a senior clerk at the post orfice in the capital, was a much respected man, even with the elders, and he could also type with two fingers.

But it was between broadcasting and aviation that Ilongo’s heart swayed. Whenever he had the opportunity, Ilongo would borrow the Philips transistor radio from Diluwe.  He enjoyed listening to the frenzied beat of the local music and to the latest French or American songs, but nothing interested him more than the news.  The voices of the man and of the woman would alternate to inform him of the events, small or shattering, through which Mungu manifested his moods.  He liked to believe that he was being addressed personally and drank the words with a mixture of relish and fascination.  He pictured himself before a microphone speaking, as the Messenger, to all and sundry in a tone of voice at once vibrant and confidential.  No matter how sad the news might be, he would win the admiration of thousands of listeners.

Ilongo the pilot was the other image that flashed in the schoolboy’s mind especially when, as now, he was riding parallel to the runway.  The pot-bellied air force Bréguet squatted at its habitual place nonchalantly behind a DC 3.  Except for the few cars stationed in the parking lot, there was no sign of the imminent arrival or the plane coming from Europe.  Ilongo always waited with the same pinch of emotion for the moment the gleaming object would pierce through the horizon, gradually taking form, in total silence at first, then with a rumble that would stretch into a long-drawn whine.  How majestic the white and blue aircraft would appear as it would initiate its descent, making no more noise than would be necessary, as if mindful not to disturb the peace of Mungu.

“The plane must have been delayed again,” the young boy concluded, disappointed, as he watched the evening set in after the dusk’s swift and blazing interlude.

He hadn’t noticed the hour go by.  The crickets had begun their stupid din, trying as forcefully as they could to drown the concert of rumors which had accompanied the brightening of the moon.  Yonder the lake shimmered as if star powder was being sprinkled on the surface.  Each one of these flickering lights was a fishing boat.  Early in the morning at the soko the fish stalls would display their rows of fleshy banga-bangas still agape, as if even dead they wanted to lure you, and the glistening dakalas , those tiny fishes the size of a child’s finger which deep-fried one chews whole: head, tail, and bone.

Ilongo suddenly perked his ears then realized the gurgle came from his own stomach.  He’d just remembered that for dinner he’d had the leftovers of yesterday’s chicken mwambe . Shangazi – Auntie – always cooked generous portions of mwambe which she served with manioc dough and hibiscus leaves when there were guests like the ndukus  – relatives – from the hills who were staying with them for a couple of days. llongo wondered whether Baba Paul ate the same kind of food or preferred beefsteak with salad and French fries of which the Europeans here seemed so fond.

Baba Paul’s last letter dated from a month and a half ago.  In it he’d said that Ilongo should prepare himself for a lovely surprise.  Last year’s money order had permitted Ilongo to buy the second-hand bicycle.  Although he hadn’t gone through the rites of manhood yet, with the Flandria, Itongo felt he’d entered the adult world.

As the eldest child of the household, Ilongo helped Shangazi take care of her three children.  His mama had died giving birth to him.  Soon  after her death, Ilongo’s father married Shangazi but Ilongo could hardly remember him as Shangazi had chased him away a long time ago.  Shangazi still referred to her husband as the good-for-nothing who’d spent his time running after loose women and wasted the family’s meager resources drinking pombe. Actually, Ilongo didn’t miss not having his real father around.

Baba Paul had more than replaced him, for not only was Baba Paul Ilongo’s father – it said so in the document the young boy kept with his school reports – but he also provided for Shangazi and her children.  Shangazi pretended that the good spirits had taken pity on her, shutting up old Mapindi once and for all.  Mapindi, who was Diluwe’s grandmother, had once cast a spell on her.  “Doomed you are,” she’d said, “for you shall remain without a husband and because of you the foreigner from Beyond the Great Water shall be consumed by fire.”

Jealousy had poisoned Mapindi’s tongue since now the old woman had become completely mute.  She continued to curse with her eyes though and whenever Shangazi had to go and fetch water from the river (Mapindi’s hut stood at the edge of the pathway), she’d spit on the ground wishing that those vicious orbs would be plunged into eternal darkness.

Time and again Shangazi had warned her nephew not to go near the hut of Mapindi’s family, but – as they were the only ones in the village who owned a transistor radio -, Ilongo found it very difficult to obey.  In fact, Ilongo who had never questioned his love for Shangazi believed that she was an easy prey to superstition and that her fears of the old woman were a bit ridiculous.

That night, after making certain the children and Shangazi were asleep, Ilongo brought the oil-lamp to the head of his mat and opened the round tin box containing Baba Paul’s letters.  The lad chose one at random and as he began reading it he felt a pinch at the base of his heart.  He went on to the next letter and then to the next, and by the time he’d put back the lid over the tin box and turned off the flame inside the oil-lamp, he’d gone through the whole correspondence and contemplated the hand-colored portrait of his foster father.

Lulled by the soft purring of the sleepers, llongo drifted into that borderless expanse which lies between wakefulness and dream and which, high in the fabled Mountains of the Moon, is Mungu’s retreat.  On the surface of the lake of clouds loomed the face of Baba Paul, huge and seemingly awash.  As his lips began to move, the mountain peaks started to shake, looking like fangs slicing the air.  A voice could now be heard deep and cavernous and so very weary it must have traveled all the way from the centre of the earth.  The voice spoke a language unintelligible to Ilongo, yet there was something familiar and awesome about it.  Mungu had strange ways of addressing humans; that was why there were witch doctors to interpret his messages.

At the far end of the lake of clouds, another face appeared but much smaller than Baba Paul’s, it was toothless old Mapindi, dusty and wrinkled like the ground in the dry season, and yet she was beaming.  Then a crow flew in and pecked at Mapindi’s eyes all the while the old woman continued to laugh.  Soon though, the whole cloud and mountainscape vanished under the crow’s wings.

Riding to school the next morning, Ilongo thought intently about Baba Paul.  It was composition day and he had the feeling that he was going to write about his foster father. That strong, sudden urge took Ilongo by surprise, for although it was no mystery that he and his family had a provider, until now the lad had been very guarded when people questioned him about Baba Paul.  And in any case, Ilongo had never been the boastful type.  Could the dream have prompted such a change in attitude?  “I’m getting superstitious like Shangazi, aya!’ he grinned.  Not quite convinced, he spat towards the ground but instead, the blob landed on the rim or the wheel.

At school, the teacher made the announcement before the class that during the night a great tragedy had occurred.  The plane coming from Europe which had been expected late in the afternoon had crashed in the jungle of Sudan.  The investigators would have to locate the site of the accident but it was feared that there wouldn’t be any survivors.  For days, all over the land, the conversation revolved around the plane crash. In the middle of the week, the two local newspapers released pictures or the scattered remains of the aircraft.  The black box, however, hadn’t been recovered.  In the village the speculations abounded.  One elder claimed it was a revenge of the martyrs’ souls against the colonialists.  To this argument a younger man retorted, “And how about our own nationals who happened to be aboard, returning students most of them?”  The elder clicked his tongue, “They had no business leaving the soil of their forebears to come back and sow venomous ideas among our population.  As it is, there are enough ministers parading with their ndukus and wives in expensive new cars and filling their homes with devilish instruments.  Have our youth lost all sense or pride?  Whoever finds that black box had better be warned, for the spirits inhabiting it will strike him and they won’t spare his kin either.  Spirits do not tolerate disrespect.”

Ilongo kept thinking of Baba Paul, every one of his nights now became crowded with images of his benefactor.  They were mainly peaceful images but nonetheless, it started to weigh inside the lad’s chest.  And also, he did not like the way Mapindi croaked each time people spoke of the plane accident.  He’d noticed how awkwardly she’d glance at him as if she were rejoicing about some evil deed.  “Nonsense,” he exclaimed to himself, dismissing the idea that she’d cast him a spell, “the old woman is just losing her mind.”

On Friday, the schoolmaster gave back the corrected compositions and Ilongo was praised for having written the best paper.  He was invited to read it aloud in front of the class.  Ilongo felt at once flattered and uneasy.  Was it right to display in public that privileged relationship?  Anyway, it was too late now, and with contained emotion, Ilongo read his composition.  Thus it was that his fellow students learned about Paul Leroy Smith, an Afro-American who resided in New Orleans, in the southern state of Louisiana, that this man who worked as a pharmacist in a drugstore was a bachelor and that he devoted what spare time he had to civil rights activities, because he could not forget that his grandparents had once been slaves.  Paul Leroy Smith had marched with a great black leader named Martin Luther King who had died for the cause of his people, just like Lumtunba and other great Africans who had fought the wars of independence. Wishing to resuscitate the link with his African heritage, Paul Leroy Smith had become Ilongo’s foster father.

Late one afternoon. as he was tying the chain of his Flandria to the pole outside the family hut, Ilongo saw Diluwe run in his direction.

“A letter from America,” Diluwe said, panting, ‘it’s for you.  It was found among the debris of the plane.”

Staring at the envelope, llongo was aghast.  The upper left corner was charred and on the lighter patch below one could clearly distinguish a fingerprint as if someone had wanted to stop the fire from spreading.  A chill coursed liongo’s spine as he opened the letter.  Diluwe stood by, eager to hear what the news was all about.  Ilongo silently read the portion of the letter that had escaped the flames.  In the last paragraph Baba Paul announced that he was about to fulfill his dearest wish, he was coming to Africa to meet him.  And here was his travel schedule; he’d fly from New Orleans to New York, there he’d catch the transatlantic flight to Brussels, he’d stay overnight in the Belgian capital, then board the plane for U.

Fate had decided that the letter accompany its sender. Thus had the soul of Baba Paul returned to the continent of his ancestors.


 

c

African spirits

SPIRIT OF TAR

 

first appeared in Chandrabhaga (India)

 

It happened on a sweltering hot afternoon.  A storm was gathering overhead. Lightning whipped the leaden sky, crackling ominously in skull-splitting resonance.

Having paid his respects to his parents, Karumi watched with growing impatience for a sign from the heavens.  It was as dark as dusk and he was eager to get back to the city.  Karumi had never really recovered from the fateful occurence which took place, while still a child, in this very same village.  The elements had broken loose and he’d taken shelter under a mango tree when all of a sudden a ball of fire licked the top of a beautiful eucalyptus, turned it ashen, broke it at its base and sent it crashing in flames across the village’s outlying huts.  Nature’s wrath had thus consumed half a dozen lives, among whose were Karumi’s two older brothers and an old uncle.  Secretly, Karumi was still holding a grudge against the gods and, year after year at the advent of the rainy season, that feeling rekindled in his heart.  He would disclose this to no one lest he be reprimanded by his now ageing folks or scoffed at by his westernized friends.  It was a war he obstinately waged against the spirits of his ancestors.  A deceitful and solitary war of nerves.

Karumi scanned the horizon once again and concluded that the storm had passed by the village, heading for the hills.  He then took leave of his parents and mounted the dashing chrome-plated bike he’d acquired the previous week.  It wis a sturdy Belgian two-wheeler which cost him three months’ salary.  Fitted with white-wall tires, four gears, a dual lamp and an electric hooter, the Flandria was Karumi’s pride.  He cherished it almost like a person.  Actually, he treated his Faindria as though it possessed a soul of its own.  Yet, at the back of his mind, Karumi wasn’t quite sure whether it had a soul such as      depicted by the Christians who taught him catechism or a spirit descended from his African ancestry.  This thought bothered him at first but soon, in the wish to dispel any superstitious fears, he settled for the soul, thus rejoining, so he believed, his more enlightened peers.

Karumi rode cautiously over the three-odd kilometers of dirt track that snaked through the savannah, avoiding, when he could, the potholes and those sharp-edged stones that treacherously jutted out of tufts of burnt grass.  At the sight of the road, he took a deep breath.  “Back to civilization!” he exclaimed as he felt his Flandria tires hug the tar.  Now Karumi had wings in his feet and, bent over the handlebar like a racing cyclist, he cleaved the air in total rapture.  Once in a while he’d dart a glance toward the opaque, low-ceilinged sky.  The danger of a cloudburst had definitely shifted southward.  As he gathered speed an unexpected feeling of anger gripped him.  That feeling which in moments of high exhilaration stealthily and without warning slips into the opposite pole of one’s being.  A strange sense of relish spiced Karumi’s aggressive mood.  He was speaking loudly, cursing the spirits.  Initially the words he’d hurl at them appeared incoherent.  Starting at his ankles then spreading to his other limbs, a sense of power gradually permeated Karumi’s whole body.  The road belonged to him and so did the horizon.  But there was something else too.  It was that other thing which Karumi couldn’t fathom that spurred his anger.  It had to do, he surmised, with the spirits.

Furiously clutching at the handlebar as he pedalled, Karumi was certain that he could conjure up those ancestral spirits of the dead.  He began to address them in  unabashed defiance.  At some point he even seemingly engaged in a two-way conversation.  He felt uneasy about it and would provide the answers to seIf-formulated queries.  Contrary to their assertion, the spirits did not wrench that ball of fire from the heavens with the intent of killing his uncle and two brothers.  That was witch doctor talk and Karumi had been to school long enough to know about the laws of physics.  Why then did they still harass him?  Karumi passed over that one.  With all their will, they couldn’t change the course of progress.  Their wisdom was of another age.  If they had truly created the world out of nothingness and were so omniscient, where were they hiding when his people stood under the yoke of colonialism?  Suddenly they were all reappearing after so many years during which the nation had become independent and endured countless hardships.  And with what purpose?  To criticize the behavior of the young folk, instilling fear and remorse in them that were far more vicious than anything the European devils might have inflicted upon them.

Pumping away at maximum velocity and with reinforced invective, Karumi dared the spirits to challenge him.  A thunderbolt rent the air, chilling the young man’s spine for a fraction of a moment.  He shrugged off the warning and made an obscene gesture with his fist.  For some unexplainable reason, while still flinging abuse at the spirits, Karumi’s eyes became glued to the tar under the bike’s front wheel.  It was fascinating him.  His attention was focused on the front wheel and the tar simultaneously.  Tire and tar … tire and tar … tire and tar … His mind got obfuscated, for he couldn’t figure out which of the two was being swallowed by the other.  He didn’t even realize that he had started the descent of a slope.  So far the road had followed a rectilinear course.  Then it happened all at once.  Karumi missed the curve.  When he tried to redress the handlebar it was already too late.  He and the Flandria tumbled over together as if they were made of one single piece, then they came crashing against the heavy metal railing.  It took Karumi several seconds before he could face reality.  The front wheel of his Flandria was spinning above ground, whirring like a wheel of fortune.  His knee was bleeding profusely.  Yet, Karumi was more concerned about the state of the Flandria.  It had fortunately only suffered minor bumps alongside the frame.  He just had to straighten out the handlebar and swivel the saddle to its original position.  The downtube though was besmeared with layers of molten tar.  That, he decided, would be dealt with once he reached his home.  So relieved was Karumi that his Flandria had survived the accident virtually unscathed that he forgot his own wound.  Back on the road, the young man resolved to maintain a steady if moderate speed.  He was whistling a popular tune when he felt the sting on his knee.  Upon looking closer at each consecutive movement of the leg, Karumi noticed the black and purple clots which had formed over his wound.  It no longer bled but appeared large and charred.  A dark square of cinder against the amber-hued surface of his skin.  The pain subsided and soon he gave it but a scant thought.  He rode past the one and only milestone announcing the city.  Merely 15 km. away.  The sky hung in front of him like a silk veil of mourning and though the rain held off, Karumi’s eyes were now rivetted to his knee.  The scar had spread all the way down to his ankle. Might it be an optical illusion?  Ancient images raced through his mind.  He gazed at the road, then at his ankle, at the road again, and recognized an awesome similarity between these two.  Yet, he couldn’t make out what it was.  At the far distance he perceived the city’s twinkling lights.  It was too late.  Slowly, gradually, irreversibly, the surrounding darkness engulfed him.

 

 


 

dSouth Africa: excerpt from All Burp’s French novel LE CAP DES ILLUSIONS, a true story.

 

THE EXAMINATION

 

first appeared in Short Story International (USA)

 

“Jan” she insisted, “we can’t keep Prudence on the farm any more.  She’ll be ten soon, and she hardly knows how to read.  She needs an education.  Really, I don’t want her getting entangled in our own mediocrity.  With a diploma in her hands, she will be able to make her way in the city, and we will follow her …  Oh, how sick I am of this life!” Martha kept saying, bitterly.

They were stretched out on their couch, with their eyes on the scorched valley; it was as if they were witnessing from their porch the rebirth of the universe.  Were they familiar with anything but that infinite solitude?

A straw hat half covered his brow; on his knees, rough fingers drummed; he didn’t blink.

This silence, Martha understood, was deciding the issue In her favor.  0 patience rewarded!

Clouds full of menace washed out the horizon.  Drops of rain fell fast and then pitilessly on that earth already ravaged by the burning torment of December.  The planks of the wretched house creaked as if suddenly trodden by ghosts.  All at once, like a predator, a thunderbolt pounced on two appletrees which in the extremity of the shock seemed to join their branches.

A flash of terror shot the length of Jan’s spine.  Under his arms the sweat froze as if to warn him of a sinister omen.  But immediately another thunderclap banished his gloomy notions.

Little by little the storm faded, to be replaced by a translucent darkness.

Martha let herself be intoxicated by the odor of chlorophyll harvested by the breeze in its passage.

“Set the table, I am going to see what the child’s up to In her room,” a voice with a guttural accent ordered her.

The new calendar was already missing its first two leaves.

 

That morning, all three of them were up before cock-crow.  The little girl’s seagray eyes were sparkling; she was all prepared to go, squeezed into a short dress with puffy sleeves; a satin ribbon held up her fiizzy hair; out of white socks rose a pair of bony, sunburnt legs.  She stood leaning against the door of the pick-up truck, fidgeting with impatience.  Yes, they we’re going to teach her to count and write properly.  She was going to penetrate the mystery of books, and have fun with other children at blindman’s buff!

A beatific smile disclosed her teeth, which seemed to capture at a stroke the freshness of dawn.

Jan balanced a checked canvas valise on the luggage-rack.

“So, here we are on the road to high adventure,” he said in a resigned tone, pinching his daughter’s cheek as if the gesture reinforced his own conviction.  Wedged in between her parents on the only seat, with her eyes, Prudence caressed the familiar undulation of the hills.  Further on, the veldt, ablaze under a copper sun, slipped away behind them in spirals of dust.  The vehicle jolted along on all its pins so that one might have thought its metallic vibrations were raising echoes beyond the valley.

Towards eleven o’clock, after an uninterrupted journey, they caught sight of a steeple.  The village consisted of some lath-work structures forming a ring around a colonial-style church.  Nothing resembling a main street even existed there.

Lost in the confines of a native ‘reserve’, the minuscule town harbored Boer schoolchildren whose families cultivated the land for three hundred miles around.

Hardly fifteen couples, with their offspring, made up this Protestant, Dutch Reformed, enclave on which the pimply face of the Pastor beamed down.

Introductions were followed by a brief tour of the school and Its boarding facilities.

In the courtyard, Prudence was immediately assaulted by the chatter of children; questions flew about her like projectiles.  The noisy little group monopolized her attention to such an extent that she almost forgot to say her goodbyes.

She’d be homesick, of course, but she was to return home every Saturday.  Her father kissed her roughly, seekng in their embrace a courage he lacked.  Meanwhile, the hurly-burly of the children was already separating him from Prudence.  Momentarily saddened, she wiped her cheek, still moist from her mother’s kiss.

A methodical girl, she devoted a good part of the afternoon to arranging her belongings in a dresser assigned to her at the back of the main dormitory; and to putting fresh covers on some notebooks, yellowed with age but yet unused, which had formerly been her mother’s.

Worn out, more from the excitement of the change than from the long trip, she got permission to go to bed before her playmates.

Classes began the following morning, in a relentless heat.

Although gifted with keen intelligence, the newcomer was for the time being put into the first grade; as a result she was taller and older than her classmates.

When the bell rang for recess, she rejoined the third graders, knowing that she’d be better off in their company.

Greta and Yolande were immediately sympathetic: they talked about the customs and rules of the school, and about their friendships.

A scrawny redheaded boy unexpectedly accosted the three of them; his wavy hair was short with bronze gleams; his pug nose looked as if it had been polished by a file. –         “Hey, first grader!  You’re pretty big for your class, if you ask me.  What hole did you crawl out of?”  he jeered at her through his nose.

“Pay no attention to that little snot, Prudence; picking on girls is all he’s good for,” Greta interposed unceremoniously.

The boy pretended not to hear.  He went on addressing the new girl:

“Lost your tongue, have you?  Say, you’re kind of dark, though, aren’t you?  You remind me a little of my maid.  All the same … no: your hair isn’t as kinky as hers …”

Outraged by the boy’s impudence, Yolande took the initiative this time:

“Just what are you getting at?  I saw her mother and father yesterday: they’re as white as you!  Oh, leave us alone!”

“White, black, café-au-lait,” he chanted, whistling as he turned on his heel.

Prudence’s eyelids were rimmed with tears.  Why had he insulted her like that?  At no time in her life had it occurred to her that her family might be anything but lily-white Afrikaners.

In an outburst of affectlon, her chums reassured her.

Nevertheless, during class, she continued to be troubled and, while her eyes were fixed on the teacher’s moving lips, a phrase echoed in her mind:

“I AM NOT A COLORED!  I AM NOT COLORED!  I AM NOT!”

Just when It was time to return to the dormitory, she was sent for by the Principal. He had collected in his office the most influential parents in the community.  The good Pastor in particular, it goes without saying, had not been omitted.

A grave decision was plainly in the offing.

They scrutnized Prudence with a corrosive bigotry which ate through to her very marrow: wasn’t she going to “contaminate” the other children by her presence?

This singular inquisition didn’t last long.  They put their heads together out of her hearing.

Petrified in a chair, the little girl was undergoing a slow metamorphosis, and no longer understood the sole language she possessed – a language become all at once hateful to her ears.  Only the fact that her heart was beating fit to burst kept her from weeping.  For the first time In her life, she knew how degraded a human being feels who’s considered an inferior.

An echo, more and more insupportable, filled her head.  She saw shadows closing around the Principal, then thought she heard claps of thunder … one, two, ten salvoes succeeding one another as though vomited from invisible machine guns.  The tornado had just broken over her.

“Have the girl come in!”

The room reeked of red tape.  A window, wide open, looked out on the street.  The clustered lights it Invited in striped the wall with thick incandescence.

Seated opposite his victim, the man made a mocking gesture which hollowed a spiteful dimple at the base of his chin.  Two colleagues, until then glued to their typewriters, got up and, dragging their chairs behind them, placed themselves one on each side of Prudence.

“Show me your fingers.  Don’t be afraid, I won’t bite you!” said the Chief, with an air of indifference.

“Look at her nails.  There’s no doubt about it.  The blue halftmoons constitute irrefutable evidence.  This kid’s got mixed bloodl”  He concluded the case for the prosecution, capturing by way of approval two simian grimaces.

Afterwards, he felt the child’s forehead, and ran his hand over her bronze curls …  It was all there!

Thus, struck by the infamous laws of apartheid, was Prudence erased from her European roots.

Join the Chameleon

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news, be in touch with the author and informed when the book is published.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This