I return to the cave behind the koppie one last time. I’m alone. My story-teller has finished his story now. Still I am drawn to this place where the veld stretches out to the smudge-blue mountains. It is late afternoon, when the sun’s red-orange afterglow becomes a purple-haze dusk; when the air is alive with spirits.
Inside the cave, my hand traces the outlines of the eland and the hunter who stands, bow and arrow poised, taking aim at the beast. A shadow moves across the scene and I turn to see the figure of a man outlined against the burning sunset. For a moment I think it’s the story-teller. But no, this is someone else.
He’s dressed in a long blanket; a string of beads decorates his head. He carries a long, stout stick which he lays against the cave entrance before stepping silently into the cave.
The San man.
He points at the eland and at the hunter. He turns to me and our eyes meet. His are the colour of the early morning sky. They tell me that he was that hunter and this was the first eland he ever killed. Killing an eland made him a man.
He beckons me over to another drawing. A lion and a man stand next to a bush which has strips of meat hanging from its branches. The man doesn’t fear the lion, because they are friends. The man shares his meat with the lion and the lion does the same with his kill. They belong to the land and the land belongs to them.
Together we walk to the cave entrance and stand looking out across the veld as the sky darkens; two tiny figures in a vast universe.
My storyteller falls silent, staring at the distant smudge-blue mountains. Sitting on the still-warm rocks, he is a ‘there-not there’ presence beside me.
The sun sets quickly here. Now the great African moon, reclining serenely on her back, casts a soft glow over the darkening veld.
All is still.
Soon the broad African sky is star-pricked velvet. Orion, the hunter, with his belt of three she-tortoises hanging on a stick, stalks across the western sky. The frothy plume of the Milky Way is a handful of ashes, cast into the sky by a Bushman girl to light the way for her people to return home.
Long, long ago was that past-time when the great herds roamed the plains: springbok in their multitudes, steenbok, kudu, eland and wildebeest. Then there were lions and elephants in the veld; and jackals, wild dogs and hyenas; great giraffes and rhino, small hares and porcupines. Now only their ghosts remain, painted on the cave walls behind me.
A huge 4×4, lights ablaze, erupts across the highway below, shattering the silence. My storyteller shakes himself and stands. He turns to me, nods and walks away.
The bell over the shop door jingles as Abdul pushes it open wide and sniffs the salty air of the pre-dawn morning. Despite the early hour, the two aunties who live in the tiny whitewashed stone building opposite are already busy on their stoep, sitting at their wide wooden table peeling a small mountain of vegetables. The aunties are always busy: knitting or sewing, mending and altering; or making rotis and other goodies to sell by the harbour. That’s how they manage.
Abdul manages too. He sells all sorts of Useful Things. Indeed, that is what his shop is called. It might be a pot or a pan, a fishing net, or a rod and line. Or maybe something more exotic, like an oyster knife or an implement for getting stones out of horses’ hooves. If you can’t find it anywhere else, then Abdul is sure to have it. You only have to ask.
He steps outside and looks up. He grins. It’s an auspicious day. A sliver of a new moon, Venus and Jupiter form a precise alignment in the eastern sky: bringing love, happiness and maybe wealth and adventure, he thinks. And something more. Abdul hurries across the dusty road to greet the two aunties.
Auntie Grace looks up from her peeling. “Have you been consulting with your heavenly bodies, Abdul?” she says with a twinkle in her eye. Auntie Grace is over ninety, the brown skin of her face is still smooth though, and she loves to tease.
Abdul inclines his head.
“And what are they telling us?”
Abdul repeats his thoughts to them.
Auntie Rose holds up a long strand of potato peeling triumphantly. “There. All in one go. We will have good luck.” She grins up at Abdul toothlessly. Her face is nut-brown and deeply wrinkled although she’s some ten years her sister’s junior.
“Most certainly, in that case,” replies Abdul. “Did you buy your lottery ticket this week?”
“Of course.” Auntie Grace reaches inside her capacious bosom and draws out the ticket.
Auntie Rose chuckles and reaches inside her pocket. “A day to put my teeth in then,” she gurns, before slipping in her dentures.
Abdul smiles, puts his two hands together and bows his head to the Aunties, before hurrying back to the shop to arrange the display on the table in front of his shop window. The other shopkeepers are opening up now and everyone nods and waves to each other. It’s a friendly little community.
The day goes well for Abdul. He’s sold an entire dinner service by eleven o’clock, and someone else is coming back later with the money for a small mahogany table which Abdul has lovingly polished every day for a month.
Later in the afternoon a tall woman, carrying two bulging holdalls comes into the shop. She’s looking for an oil lamp. ‘Something which doesn’t need electric,’ she says. ‘Not a candle,’ she adds emphatically. The woman is about Abdul’s age, he guesses; neither young nor old. She wears a long skirt and a rather obvious wig, he notices. He hasn’t seen her before. He wonders if she’s new to the town, but he’s too shy to ask. He thinks for a moment then finds exactly the lamp she’s looking for. He throws in a small container of kerosene for free and her face lights up. She stuffs her purchases into one of her bags. Abdul hold the shop door for her and watches as she slowly walks away, her head held high.
Now he’s eager for the working day to end. He has something to do and this is the very day on which he must do it. He saw the syzygy, the particular alignment, in the early morning sky. Abdul’s eyes stray to a large, cracked leather-bound volume which stands on his highest shelf, partly concealed behind a bulbous copper kettle.
It had been the aunties who had given him the book more than a year ago. Written as it was in Arabic, they’d had no use for it. It had just been taking up space, Auntie Rose had said. But it had come with a stern warning from Auntie Grace. She’d recalled mention in their family of some strange ‘happening’ when her grandfather had read it aloud in his room one night during a full moon. Abdul had smiled and shaken his head. His Arabic wasn’t so good, he’d said. And it hadn’t been until he’d begun to try to read the book.
Now he’s pretty much fluent.
As soon as he’s locked up the shop at precisely five o’clock, Abdul carefully lifts the book down from the shelf and disappears into his little private room and the back of the shop. All goes quiet. Nobody notices when much later that evening a strange curl of reddish smoke rises from the back of the shop, or a peculiar, over-sweet odour wafts away on the strengthening estuary breeze.
Across the road, the aunties are jumping up and down like spring chickens, having netted a nice little lottery win. Not life-changing, but certainly life-improving, they say to each other. Rose puts her dentures back in to celebrate with a toothy grin.
Neither of them sees the fish eagle as it flies in a graceful arc, up over their little house to the harbour, curving round across the estuary mouth to head down the river towards the salt flats where it wheels again and flies over the marina and out to sea, hugging the coast, looking down at the fishing boats in the coves along the coast. The bird alights briefly on the headland opposite the harbour then, as if satisfied, returns to whence it came, disappearing behind the workshops and warehouses which line the harbour.
Abdul doesn’t see the aunties until they return from church the following day. They stand beaming outside his shop, peering in until he comes to the door. He pokes his head out, but unusually, he doesn’t step outside, expressing his congratulations on their news from his side of the door.
Auntie Rose takes a step forward and reaches up. She plucks a feather from his beard and holds it out to her sister. Auntie Grace peers round the door and notices something odd about the way Abdul is standing. She glances down. She nudges her sister and nods at Abdul’s feet which are mostly hidden by his long white shirt and matching trousers. He shuffles his feet awkwardly.
“What’s the matter with your toes?” says Auntie Rose. Abdul looks at her, then down at his feet. The claws which poke out from his sandals are unmistakable.
“The book?” asks Auntie Grace.
Inspired by ‘Korfiyah’ by Cape Town artist, Solly Gutman – visit his website for more of his wonderful artwork
Johannes stretched out his legs and breathed in the warm sea air which mingled with the smell of freshly-landed fish and diesel. He smiled to himself. This is the life, he thought, far away from all his cares and responsibilities. It had been a stroke of luck that Robert, his brother, who had landed a two month contract working up-country, had asked him if he would like to come and mind his little house on the coast while he was away. Robert, a long-time widower, lived alone now that his family had grown up and moved to Cape Town, and he didn’t want to leave his house unoccupied. People were for the most part honest, but with such high unemployment and poverty, no-one’s property was safe for long.
Johannes had his own problems back home. Much as he loved his extended family, it was all becoming too much. What with his own grown up children, their children and assorted aunties, nephews and nieces who were constantly calling upon him for help, he’d really had enough. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t manage without him. It would be good for them, especially his four sons, to stand on their own two feet for a change. He’d even gone to the extent of switching his cell phone off.
He cast his eyes over the small harbour, looking out for Sam in his little fishing boat, Porcupine, which he’d helped him repair over a week or two when he first arrived. Johannes liked to keep busy, and was pleased to be able to use the skills he’d gained during his fifteen years at sea. But there was no sign of Sam or little Porcupine. Perhaps they’d gone further up the coast for a while. There were other harbours on the West Coast where Sam might turn a better profit for his catch.
Johannes chuckled to himself and closed his eyes, remembering the past. He’d run away to sea with his friend when they were just twelve years old. Carrying a little bag of warm clothes, he’d snuck out of his mother’s shack while she was sleeping and met his older sister up by the highway. She had a job in a bar next to Cape Town harbour, and she knew an officer on one of the deep sea fishing boats who would help them once they were on board. Johannes recalled standing in the almost pitch black on the quayside, his body swaying, thinking it was the ground under him which was moving, when in fact it was the looming steel hull of the ship in front of him. And oh, they had been so sick once the ship was underway…
Shouts and running feet jolted Johannes back to the present. The harbour master, jamming his peaked cap on his head, rushed past Johannes towards the southern end of the harbour where a small group of people had gathered. Johannes stood up and shook himself, then hurried after the harbour master to join the gathering crowd, jumping up onto the harbour wall to get a better view of what had caught their interest.
A tall, slender woman in long skirts was standing on the edge of the headland across the estuary. Her arms were held out in a welcoming gesture as dozens of whales were breaking the surface of the waves before her. She lifted her head skywards, spreading her arms out widely, in a pose which reminded Johannes of the statue of he’d so admired long ago in Rio de Janeiro.
The woman opened her mouth and a loud, ululating song resonated across the ocean. Suddenly the whales took to the air; wave upon wave of them. Johannes blinked and shook his head. What was going on? The woman’s song grew louder. The whales were flying! Johannes pinched himself.
The sky darkened, filled with the huge creatures. Then the song stopped.
A close up of the woman’s face appeared before Johannes’s eyes. She smiled, revealing a row of pointed teeth. A selkie! He’d seen one before when his ship had been in far northern waters. Johannes felt the harbour wall ripple beneath his feet.
Her face disappeared and back on the headland he watched her dive into the ocean. Her silver seal tail flapped once above the waves, and then she was gone.
Johannes looked around. He was alone on the harbour wall. Behind him, people were going about their business as usual. He sat down and rubbed his eyes. The headland was deserted. Far out in the ocean he saw a solitary whale breaching.
This little story was inspired partly by many conversations I’ve had over the years with my friend Johannes, and partly by the photo of the artwork above posted earlier this week byJason H Abbott, the Aetheral Engineer. It also linksanother storyof mine from a couple of weeks ago. I hope you enjoy!
Albertina throws the remains of her black coffee onto the dusty ground outside the door and stuffs her little tin mug into the top of a bulging holdall which stands by a similarly stuffed canvas bag next to the open door. As she finishes chewing the crust of bread she’s saved for her breakfast, she adjusts her second best wig and looks around the sparse shack which has been her home for the past few months: Time to move on.
Albertina snatches up the two heavy bags, which contain all her worldly goods, and strides out into the early morning. She holds her head up and sticking her nose in the air, walks past the people busy with their cooking fires and washing bowls. She will not miss them and she will not miss the location, with its noise and dust and people fighting and drinking long into the night. Her son is settled in a farm school and he has a roof over his head. He’s with people who’ll take better care of him that she can, far away from the temptations of drugs and alcohol, underage sex and communicable diseases which are all that life has to offer young people in the location.
Fifteen minutes of steady walking bring Albertina to the edge of the freeway. She is aware of the weight of the bags that she’s carrying, but she’s used to it, used to carrying all her belongings with her; you can’t risk leaving anything unattended for long in a shack. The traffic is heavy and the hot dirty wind from the road tugs at her long skirts. Albertina trudges on as far as the service station where she stops near the exit to the parking area. Here she will get her first lift. She takes out a tightly folded twenty rand note from where is has been tucked inside her clothing and flattens it out, smoothing over the creases. She holds it out ready to each passing vehicle.
It’s not long before a large blue truck pulls up beside her. Its air-brakes hiss loudly. The driver leans over and extends a thick brown arm to open the passenger door for her. Albertina looks up at him. For a moment they scrutinize each other. He looks okay, she thinks, but she’s still wary. She tries to read his face. The driver breaks into a gap-toothed grin and asks her where she’s going.
Albertina shrugs. ‘Just onwards,’ she smiles cautiously.
‘I’m going up the coast,’ he replies.
Albertina nods. One direction is as good as another. The coast sounds nice: fresh. Why not? Something will turn up. She hefts her bags into the foot-well and, gathering up her skirts, climbs nimbly into the cab. The driver indicates the seat belt and reaches over to help her. His hand brushes briefly against her left breast. She looks at him sharply but his attention is already focused on the road as he pulls away.
He eases the heavy vehicle out onto the busy highway, turning the radio up loudly. Albertina is grateful for the music; she doesn’t like to chat. She looks out of the window watching the sprawl of scruffy shacks give way to a patch of open land, then more buildings: huge, bland industrial buildings. She briefly wonders what goes on inside. The truck driver taps on the steering wheel along with the music, apart from when he’s jabbing at the horn or muttering an obscenity at some other road user. She winces inwardly at the words.
The truck turns off the freeway and onto the west coast highway. The traffic is calmer and there is only bush and scrub beyond the edge of the tarmac. Albertina gazes out across the open country; the ocean is faintly discernible, a clear azure strip below the wide African sky. She winds down her window a little. The driver turns to her – they haven’t so much as exchanged names – and suggests they stop for a break. He needs to stretch his legs. Albertina nods and leans forward to reach inside the pocket of her holdall.
There is a rest stop a kilometre ahead: three sets of concrete tables with concrete stools surrounding them, set back from the road under a stand of shady trees. They have the place to themselves. The driver parks up and jumps out of the cab. He strides round the front and opens the passenger door for Albertina. He offers her a hand to help her down, which she takes. Albertina’s bright pink pumps hit the ground lightly; the driver keeps hold of her hand and pulls her gently sideways, away from the door. Their eyes meet as he takes a step towards her. She takes a step back. He smiles pleasantly. ‘Come now,’ he says, ‘a little something for my trouble.’ He closes in and Albertina is caught between him and the side of the truck.
Quick as a flash she whips out her little steel knife and holds the point against the side of his neck. The man’s eyes widen. He steps back, holding up his hands out in surprise. It is now Albertina’s turn to advance. She sets her face in a steely glare and, although inside her heart is fluttering with fear, she takes a step forward and stops within striking distance, knife raised. The man remains still. A long minute passes. A couple of cars go by; a bird shrieks in the tree above them. Then all is quiet.
Loud music breaks the silence heralding the arrival of a bright red sports car. It draws up sharply behind the truck raising a cloud of dust. The man looks around but Albertina’s gaze remains fixed on him. Car doors open and the music blares out even more loudly. High female voices call out to each other. Paying no attention to the truck or the two people beside it they unload a cooler box from the car and dump it on the nearest table.
The driver holds out his hands, palms upward. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ he says quickly. Albertina glances towards the noisy group of girls. She lowers the knife.
‘I’m getting your bags,’ the man says firmly. Albertina nods. Moments later he bags are on the ground and the truck is starting up. Albertina watches calmly as he drives away. She picks them up and goes to sit at the table behind her. She looks across at the four long-limbed blonde-headed girls who are sipping from cans of cool drink.
‘Hey!’ One of the girls gets up and walks over to Albertina. ‘Ag, no! Did that guy just leave you here?’ She looks round at her friends and back at Albertina. ‘Shame, man!’ Another girl approaches and asks where she’s going. Albertina gestures vaguely up the road.
Albertina now becomes the centre of attention. The skimpily-clad young women gather round and one of them fetches a cool drink for her; they all mutter darkly about the skelm driver. Albertina is a little overwhelmed, but happily accepts the offer of a lift. They can’t take her to where they’re staying, of course, but the nearest town will surely be fine. Albertina nods. It will surely be fine.
And so, after a whirlwind of a drive in the noisy little sports car, with its loud music and louder girls, and the howling wind which forced her to remove her second best wig, so as not to lose it out of the open window, Albertina finds herself back on foot, carrying her two bulging bags into a busy little coastal town. By late afternoon, she’s found her way down to the harbour. She sets her bags down and stares out across the ocean. She breathes in the sharp, salty air and looks around; she has a good feeling about the place. Something will turn up, she thinks.
Sam cast off from the jetty in his little fishing boat, Porcupine. The last orange and gold sunset slivers disappeared behind the blue-grey hills on the far horizon as his pushed the throttle forward and eased little Porcupine out into the broad Breede river.
Gulls wheeled noisily overhead, their keening cries eerie in the twilight. The twin lighthouses blinked on either side of the bay. Sam pushed the throttle forward another notch against the growing sea swell. He ran his work-roughened hands around the little boat’s steering wheel and set his course along the coast, inhaling the sharp sea air.
Sam had grown up in Manenberg on the Cape Flats. Life had been hard there; it still was. But he’d escaped. He’d had to. On the run from members of an opposing gang, he’d got on the road and hitched up the West Coast. He’d slept rough; got work, casual stuff; then things started to look up. He’d found a broken-down little boat one day when he was exploring the shoreline for salvage. Slowly he’d fixed it up with the help of a retired engineer called Johannes, who spent his days giving advice and watching the activity in Laaiplek harbour.
Sam and Porcupine made a great team. He’d brought the little boat back to life and now she gave him safe shelter and a means to make a living from the bounty of the ocean. Tonight he was fishing for octopus, which is best done at night with a lamp and a little can of vegetable oil to make a window in the waves. He rounded the coast to his favourite cove and dropped anchor.
Night came quickly, and within half an hour Sam had two good-sized octopuses in his bucket. He shifted a little on the makeshift perch of his old sleeping blanket, propping his back against the wheelhouse. Sam had been busy helping out in the harbour all day and he was tired. Lulled by the bobbing boat, he slipped away into a glorious slumber.
Sam was startled by the sound of voices. Someone was on the boat.
‘Concentrate,’ said the first.
‘I am concentrating,’ said the second.
Sam held up the lamp. ‘Who’s there?’ He turned around sharply. He walked around the deck, peering out into the inky ocean. He heard them again.
‘Over he-re,’ the voice said in a sing-song voice.
‘Over he-re,’ joined in the second voice in a deeper tone.
Sam spun around. Where were the voices coming from?
‘Coo-e,” the first voice called out.
Suddenly a jet of water spurted out of the bucket wetting Sam’s feet. A tentacle waved at him. ‘Coo-e.’ It waved again.
Sam crouched down by the bucket. The two octopus heads bobbed up, their eyes fastened upon his. ‘What the…?’ Each of them winked at him. ‘No!” Sam stood up and took a step backwards. More tentacles appeared, waving at him. Sam shook his head.
‘Let us go!’
‘Please, mister fisherman!’
Sam approached the bucket again. He squatted down. ‘No man. Fish don’t talk.’
‘We’re not fish,’ said the first voice indignantly.
Sam rubbed his eyes; he pinched himself.
‘You’re not dreaming, you know.’ A tentacle extended towards Sam’s arm and prodded him gently.
‘Tip us out and let us go,’ sang the first voice.
‘And lots of treasure you will know,’ sang the second.
Very slowly Sam picked up the bucket and stepped over to the side of the boat. As the two octopuses slid into the sea, a huge wave broke over the boat, knocking Sam flat on the deck. The bucket landed next to him with a clatter. Porcupine bobbed about like a cork, and suddenly dozens of octopuses appeared above the waves. As Sam tried to find his feet, a vast tentacle reached onto the deck and grabbed the bucket, swiping Sam across the head and knocking him out cold.
When Sam awoke the sun was shining. His head ached. Gingerly he felt the back of his skull. He’d obviously had a nasty knock, but what had happened? He sat up slowly, trying to remember. He’d heard voices; someone on the boat? Sam’s brow furrowed. Something glinting in the sunlight caught his eye.
His fishing bucket was full of shiny objects. He reached out and dragged it over towards him. The bucket was brimming over with gold coins like a hoard of pirate treasure.