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On its first publication over twenty years ago, this captivating novel marked the arrival of one of the most imaginative minds at work: a writer capable of transporting his readers to a strange and wonderful landscape while revealing the humanity within the mirage.
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Overview

On its first publication over twenty years ago, this captivating novel marked the arrival of one of the most imaginative minds at work: a writer capable of transporting his readers to a strange and wonderful landscape while revealing the humanity within the mirage.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780880014984
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/1/1997
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 138
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Crace is the author of eight previous novels. Being Dead was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2000. In 1997, Quarantine was named the Whitbread Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Crace has also received the Whitbread First Novel Award, the E.M. Foster Award, and the Guardian Award. He lives in Birmingham, England with his wife and two children.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Talking Skull

Consider your inheritances, fellow students. Enumerate and evaluate. You are the sons and daughters of rich men. Who else but rich fathers could spare the money for tuition fees, for examination bribes, for graduation robes? Calculate the value of those family businesses — the import/export companies, the truck and bus firms, the riverside farming enterprises, the chicken and egg franchises, the Rest House chains, the strings of market booths. Include, also, the lands in town and country, the houses in the New Extension, the investments in foreign banks. Subtract all personal bequests and divide the remainder by the number of sons and daughters born to your parents. And there you have it, a nice fat sum, your inheritance. Do not wish your parents dead. Long life and wisdom to them all. But be carefree — they cannot live for ever and, when they die, your comforts are assured. You are the legatees of thoroughly modern businessmen. You inherit wealthy manners, expensive accents, extravagant partialities. You talk of trips to Paris and New York; you sat in cafes, unembarrassed, and ordered wines and beers and shallow cups of coffee in French and English; you talked politics and business and literature; you made liaisons; at private dinner parties you were at ease with artichokes and avocados, with cigars and charades. For you this is one world. You are internationalists. This, too, is your inheritance. There are no frontiers to your ambition.


I love so much to meet your fathers. They are unhurried. They are gently inquisitive. ‘Do I detect a forest accent, Lowdo?’ they ask me. ‘What are your family?Timber or farming? Who is your father? How many men does he employ? How many acres?’ We sit and contrive between us answers which invent a wide flat valley, a leisurely shoulder-deep river, a contented village of a thousand compounds. Six thousand acres of fertile ground provide nourishment for plantations of black-bark tarbony, fields of maize and sunflower, herds of milk cattle. At the benevolent centre of this paradise, my conjured father, his accountant and estate manager discuss agricultural strategies. From the airstrip a modest Cessna takes off for supplies. A pretty maid serves iced mint-water and honey cake. In the paddock my mother and sister canter on thoroughbreds.

‘Where does your father purchase his supplies?’ your fathers ask me. ‘Who markets his milk? Who buys his corn oil? Who processes his tarbony? Does he own his own mills or is the timber floated downriver and auctioned to merchants? Who handles his affairs in the city?’ These are questions I cannot answer. I shrug at your fathers and protest my ignorance. I do not have a head for names and figures, I tell them. I am too immersed in my studies, in the intricacies of Biology. ‘Why then,’ they insist, ‘is your father unknown to us? Does your father never come to the city? Our house is his house. Bring him to us. Let him see that his son keeps good company. Promise us, Lowdo, that you will bring your father to us.’

I cannot satisfy their suspicions. But I cross my legs and let them note expensive Rome-cut trousers, Spanish leather shoes. I rest my hands on the arms of their cane sofas and display the discreet and sparkling bracelet and the gold watch. Certainly my father is rich. Certainly I am from the country — consider my weatherbeaten forehead, my tough hands, my plosive accent. There is no concealing wealth and there is no concealing ancestry. If your fathers mistrust my sketch of life at home, then they do not care to press me or to embarrass me. ‘Lowdo is a dreamer,’ they say. ‘Either that or he has something to hide. Something governmental. Something military. Something worth a lot of money, that’s for sure. There’s gold on his land, maybe. Or orichalc. What a catch for some girl! All the time his inheritance multiplies. Our door is always open to young Lowdo.’


Young Lowdo travels home once a year, fellow students, during the Harvest Vacation, while you are holidaying at your cottages on the Mu coast or flirting in Manhattan. There is the wide, flat valley which I have described and the lazy river. But still I am a long day’s journey from my homelands. I spend the night in the Rest House. The lorries go no further than here. The pretty maid that I have described to your fathers is not a complete concoction. She serves at the Rest House and sleeps with the lorry driver. I cannot say who lives in the large house with the veranda. There are no thoroughbreds, there is no airstrip. But this is paradise. When I was a child, I always thought so — the yellow cobs of maize, the golden discs of sunflower, the fat and perfect cows.

At dawn I leave my sleek city clothes with the warden and, dressed in a country tunic and sun cap, set off up the valley on a hire-mule. After a dozen kilometres (tired already, irritable) I leave behind the gummy smells of the tarbony plantations and climb through odourless thickets of thorn and acacia. Lizards scurry and freeze like sniff dancers on a wedding day. The cattle here are slimmer and more restless: their tails slap flies, their leather mouths and stomachs grind thorn needles and dry grass. They will not budge for the mule. They give way to nothing except the secret whistle of the cattle boy. These are the belted aurochs of the scrub-people, a chocolate-brown breed of cattle with a broad black waist. Their milk is rich in butterfat but their beef is slow to mature. Their dung spits and glows in the fire. Their hides are tough and oily — good only for buckets or shoes. Their cheese is as greasy and pliable as beeswax and tastes of wood.

The rich landowners of the valley keep away. They have no interest in these modest cattle and this worn land. Belted aurochs are a poor investment. The riverine cattle are fatter, more docile, more fertile. But here the herd is still the great provider — food and fuel, rough clothing and manure. No family can hope to survive without a dozen or so grazing cows with annual access to a bull. None tries. All are happily obsessed by livestock. Every beast is woven an intricate necklace of straw with its family signature of knots and loops. Tucked into each necklace, like a sporting favour, is a sprig of mullein to protect the cattle from sickness and sorcery. Mullein poultices are strapped to sore udders. Petals from the tall yellow spikes of mullein flowers are added reverently to cheese. Nowhere are there more superstitious people or more pampered animals. Nowhere in the land are there farmers less wealthy.

Your fathers shake their heads and marvel at my watch and bracelet and expensive clothes and extravagant education. If they could see me now, fellow students, on a mule amongst my neighbours, answering their greetings, skirting their lethargic cattle, then they would wonder even more at the source of my riches. Would they welcome me into their homes in this stiff tunic and peasant hat? Would they welcome my father if he came to town?


At the last village before the descent into the hollow where our family land is sited, I am called by the small son of a villager and led into their compound for refreshment. My hire-mule is watered and tethered well away from a tempting patch of tomatoes, melon and mullein. I am brought a bowl of perfumed water and a small pat of guest soap. The boy serves sweet mint tea and dishes of yoghurt and cucumber. They want to know about life in the city. I describe domestic refrigerators and air-conditioned stores, traffic and cinemas, tinned food and nightclubs, golf courses and elevators. I offer American filter cigarettes. All — from the boy to the grandmother — accept and puff on them studiously.

‘Did you go to the nightclub?’ they ask.

‘Yes, many times, I was the guest of my friends’ fathers. We had reserved tables close to the stage. There was a beautiful singer from Rome. There was an orchestra. There was an exotic dancer who took most of her clothes off and did cartwheels amongst the customers. There was dancing and girls to dance with.’

‘Did you dance, Lowdo?’

‘No, not with the girls. But once I got drunk on French wine and danced a country egg dance for them, right there on the stage, with the spotlight on me and the orchestra struggling for a tune. I broke a dozen eggs and a wine glass, but nobody cared. You can behave how you want in a nightclub. That’s what they’re for. Everything is allowed so long as you can pay. The eggs and wine glass were on the bill.’

My hosts are happy at the thought of my broken eggs in the city. I am hugged and kissed, my hair ruffled, my cheek pulled. Here it is not a faux pas to touch.

‘We have a fully suckled calf for your father,’ I am told by the mother, her thin arm resting intimately across my shoulder. ‘Will you take it with you now? The herd are restless. We have her tied in the shed but still the herd are restless. They know she’s there.’ She takes a large round cheese and places it, in a cloth, on the ground at my feet. ‘This is for your father,’ she says, ‘if he will take this calf.’

‘Let me see the animal,’ I say.

She leads me out of the compound to a shed well away from the house and pulls back the leather from the door. The young heifer is brought into the open. I kneel to examine her. Her genitals are badly malformed, her vagina wide and exposed with an enlarged clitoris and a stringy tuft of vulval hair. Her udders are undeveloped. A fold of skin — a rudimentary penis — runs from her udders to her navel. She is a freemartin, the malformed, cursed and sexually disruptive twin of a bull calf. She is the warped demon of fertility. I tie her lead to the saddle of the mule (she tries to mount him, to excite him) and set off for my father’s compound and his herd of ninety freemartins.


‘Chatter, chatter,’ says my father. ‘Is that all you’ve picked up in the city?’ He unwraps the neighbour’s cheese and holds it to his nose. ‘Hmm, too fresh.’ He has been spoiled, not liberated, by wealth. He is unlike your fathers. Mean and cunning in outlook, tough, violent in his own defence, narrow-minded, readily pleased and easily offended, unloving. He bullies me with his ignorance. I bully him with my learning. I hold out a textbook. (He doesn’t read, of course.)

‘So this is chatter? The education that you’ve bought me, all the latest wisdoms — just “chatter” to you! Listen!’ I read from the book: ‘ “Twins in cattle have common membranes and a common blood supply. In nine out of ten of all cases where a heifer is twinned with a bull calf, the male hormone of the bull is thought to prevent normal development of the reproductive organs of the female or freemartin calf. Their gonads tend to resemble non-functionary testes, their Fallopian tubes and uterus are frequently only partially developed . . .”’

‘Chatter,’ says my father. Outside, in the longshadowed dusk, ninety-one freemartins, recreant and degenerate, nuzzle stooks of scrub grass.

‘There’s nothing strange or magical or ill-omened about these cows,’ I tell him. ‘Listen to the book! There is . . . a . . . simple . . . biological . . . explanation! They’re just unlucky twins.’ My father rubs his palm with a forefinger to signal Money. He sweeps his hand grandly round the room to indicate his riches: the cluster of highly polished paraffin lamps, the ornate and ever-silent Italian accordion with its silver trim and mother-of-pearl decoration, the radio (batteries long dead), the bottles of brandy and Negrita, the rugs and tapestries, the clocks and mirrors, the grandiose safe which was brought by my grandfather from the city in a donkey cart in 1934. He flashes gold teeth, gold rings and a gold key to the family safe.

‘Chatter,’ he says.

In the morning a young man wrapped in a blanket is found sleeping on our veranda. My father wakes him and feeds him with sour bread and cheese and weak mint tea. The young man is soon to be married and has come to buy freemartin milk. My father, like a merchant selling bicycles or typewriters, lists the properties of his product. For centuries his family has been supplying young men with freemartin milk, he asserts. He provides only the best, unwatered and fresh. He gives good measure for a fair price. He has a family reputation to maintain. Potency is a complicated matter. He is a simple man and cannot explain its intricacies. But this has been proven by thousands of satisfied customers: freemartin milk makes all the difference to a nervous young man on his marriage night. It does the trick. None return dissatisfied or with complaints that the milk is powerless.

‘Sip this on the morning of your marriage,’ he says, producing a grimy jar, ‘and your wife will have no regrets. And when you want to have children, come back and buy some more. You will have sons.’ The young man hands over a tight bundle of banknotes. He and my father embrace. My father pours him a mouthful of rough spirit for the journey and presents him with the jar of freemartin milk.

Two women have been watching from a clump of aloes and, once the bridegroom has gone, they call my father, covering their faces with their shawls. They are sisters. They are barren. Both have been married for eight years. They have loving husbands. ‘But we have no children.’ My father advises them. ‘Infertility is a complicated matter,’ he explains. ‘I am an uneducated man. I cannot understand its intricacies. All I can understand is the evidence of my own eyes and what I have learnt from my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather — all noble men. Drink my milk during your periods. Make your husbands sip a little, too, before you sleep together. You will have children.’ I look at the women’s thin ankles, their slight and bony figures, their heavy-knuckled hands and stiff fingers tugging at their shawls. And eat plenty of fruit,’ I want to tell them. ‘Fresh meat. Green vegetables. Cheese. Plain, cheap cow’s milk. You need protein, vitamins, and iron. Then you’ll have children.’

One of the women hurries forward to the open ground between the aloes and our house. She puts money under a stone and returns to her less bold sister. My father touches his chest at the spot where his unscientific prejudices imagine his heart to be located and gives thanks. He walks forward to exchange the money for jars of grey milk. Now the sisters scurry forward together, collect their purchases and depart.

In the evening a man of my father’s age arrives on an almost white mule. My father lights all his lamps to mark the importance of his guest, an old friend and the head of a respected family. Together they drink deep glasses of spirit and gently mock my studies at the university, my stiff city manners, my closely shaven face.

‘You have become a talking skull,’ the friend tells me. My father chuckles. ‘What? You don’t know the story?’ Of course I do. It is a folk-tale so familiar to every schoolchild in every continent that even hardpressed teachers no longer tell it. But the man inhabits a less complicated universe than the schoolroom. He is committed to his tale. Nothing can stop him now. He settles back into the cushions and drains his glass. ‘There was a young man,’ he says, ‘just like you. He left his father and his herd and his neighbours in his home village and went off to the city. Life would be easier there, he thought. Nobody heard from him for over a year. His face was forgotten. No word came to his father, or even to the girl who was his sweetheart. And then, one day, he showed up. Dressed like an American. Full of himself and his new lifestyle. And what a tale he had to tell! You’d think he’d discovered paradise. He boasted that he had found enlightenment in the city. “Nonsense!” they said. “There are no new wisdoms. All wisdoms are old.” But this young fellow thought he knew best. “Not so,” he said. “Listen to what has happened to me. I was walking in the city one night. I was lost. I was a little drunk. I found an old skull hidden in some bushes. I lifted it up and asked, ‘What brought you here?’ And the skull replied! It said, ‘Talking brought me here.’ Have you ever heard of such a marvel? I came straight back to the village to tell you about the skull that talks.”

‘Well, his father and friends had a good laugh. “The city has gone to your head,” they told him. “Did you get knocked down by a lorry? Or is the city drink too strong for you?” But the young man was insistent. What did they know about the big, wide world? He’d show them up for what they were! Ignorant bumpkins. He’d bring the skull to the village. Then they would eat their words. “Bring it, then,” an uncle told him. “But don’t forget the way you have insulted us. Don’t come back without your talking skull or you will bring shame on yourself and your family.”

‘So he returned to the city. He went to the spot where he had found the skull and, yes, it was still there, exactly as he had left it. “What brought you here?” he asked. Silence. Silence. “What brought you here? What brought you here?” Still the skull was silent.

‘Our clever young friend returned each day and tried to strike up conversation. No luck. What could he do? How could he return home without his talking skull? How could he remain in the city without the support of his family? All he could do was persist with the skull. He went without food and work and shelter. Nobody helped him. Why should they? He was a stranger, a crazy stranger who talked to bones. “What brought you here? What brought you here?” He got hungrier. Dirtier. Thinner. Weaker. More desperate. And then, of course, he died, dropping to the ground next to the old human skull. Now, at last, it opened its yellow jaws and asked, “What brought you here?” What do you suppose the young man’s corpse replied?’

‘Chatter,’ says my father.

‘ “Talking brought me here”,’ I recite dutifully.

My father’s friend has embarrassed me to hide his own embarrassment. His is more than just a social visit. He has come on business. His passions are in tumult. On the one hand, he is a man shamed by a wife so sick of pregnancy that she refuses to share his bed. On the other, he is a vaunting lover with designs on a local widow. How to succeed with this woman, half his age? ‘Let me take something with me, old friend,’ he says, ‘to win her heart.’ My father makes a great show of thought and then he advises a cunning double application of freemartin milk. What else?

‘Passion between men and women is a complicated matter,’ he explains. ‘Who can unravel such a tangle? My milk can help — but who can say why or how? You’ll make your head ache looking for answers. Just trust in the experience of a thousand others. Take one jar for your widow. Add it secretly to her fresh milk. She will begin to think of love. But her love will be indiscriminate. My milk cannot work miracles. I cannot make her prefer you to all others. But if you are constantly there, well then, when she grows tender you will have the advantage. The second jar is for your wife. Maybe she will reconsider.’

My father’s friend takes banknotes from his saddlebag and puts them under the almost empty bottle. ‘Make sure you give me only the freshest and richest milk,’ he says.

It is almost midnight and these two old friends drag an unwilling freemartin out of her sleep and into the light of the stables. She is ugly and malformed and resentful. My father stoops and tugs at her shrunken udders. He works hard in his own shadow, his back blocking his friend’s view. Eventually he turns to show a bowl half full of some opaque liquid, a little urine, perhaps, mixed with thick bovine secretions. The cow’s udders are rough and sore. My father applies a poultice of mullein and then stands to display what he has managed to coax from the cow’s vestigial teats. ‘Milk,’ he says. ‘Good and fresh!’

‘Freemartins don’t produce milk,’ I say. ‘They can’t and they don’t.’

Both men chuckle. ‘Talking skull,’ says my father.


Today a helicopter has been circling the village. It lifts a dust devil of dry earth and grass in its path. Foxes, owls and night voles which should be sleeping in holes and hollows flee from the helicopter’s storm of agitated air. The pilot is searching for a level landing spot. The machine settles at last on the edge of the village. Its engine is cut and all that can be heard for a moment is the complaint of a calf separated from the herd. All the villagers have hurried to touch the machine. It is the first aircraft to have landed here.

A woman climbs from the helicopter. She has an old tanned face and young blonde hair. Who speaks German or English or French, she wants to know.

‘English,’ I say. ‘Some French. I am at your service, of course. Je ne demande pas mieux. Cela va sans dire.

‘Excellent. Tell me, do you know the man who has the herd of freemartin cows?’

‘He is my father.’

Now she is delighted. She holds out a broad hand. ‘My name is Anna,’ she says. ‘And yours?’

‘Lowdo.’ (‘Lowdo, Lowdo,’ repeat my neighbours, recognizing a word.) She is a Swedish film-maker, she says. She is making a documentary. Would it be possible to film in the village, to talk to my father, to see the freemartin herd? I turn and ask my neighbours. Yes, yes, they say. Let her film in the village. Our house is her house. Now she introduces the pilot, her cameraman and her sound recordist. They grin and wave as I translate their names and their occupations.

‘Who’d like a ride in the helicopter?’ the pilot asks. ‘You could see your village from above.’ Nobody volunteers.

I lead Anna and her crew along the track to our compound. She is animated and delighted with everything she sees. She makes notes. She asks the names of flowers and small children. I explain the significance of the cattle necklaces and help her with the pronunciation of some common words. She is, she says, interested in living folklore. She has filmed in thirty countries but still she hasn’t lost her sense of wonder. ‘As soon as I heard just half a whisper of this freemartin business,’ she says, ‘I just dropped everything and flew right out. It’s all so magical, so naive.’ But, no, she isn’t criticizing. Naivety she admires. It is a quality missing in Sweden. Have I ever visited Stockholm? No? Then it must be arranged. She will talk about it to a man she knows at the embassy. But first she asks for all my help with her film. Will I do that for her? Will I persuade my father to agree to the filming?

My father is unimpressed (or so he claims) by the fuss and commotion. It is all inconvenient. Already, he complains, customers have been scared away. He has lost money; he has lost time; his milk does not last for ever; the clatter of the helicopter has upset his herd.

‘Tell him that this film is very important to us,’ instructs Anna.

‘Ask her how important,’ says my father.

Anna offers fifty American dollars but they are worthless away from the city and the banks. My father points at the bags and boxes of the film crew. Each one is opened. He inspects cameras and lenses and film cans. Clothes and camping gear are unpacked and displayed. He touches a hurricane lamp, a camping stove, a torch, an inflatable mattress and the aluminium tent-poles. These are his fee. Anna nods: ‘Tell your father that these are our gifts to him when we leave. These are his only when all the film is in the can.’

I work hard for Anna and her film. My father is not easily managed. He does not understand the requirements of the cameraman. He does not have the patience for the repetitions of filming. But he has set his heart on the tent-poles and is grumpily cooperative. He is filmed selling milk to a shy bridegroom. He is filmed feeding the herd. I translate Anna’s questions to him and paraphrase his rough answers for the film’s subtitles. I arrange for the film crew to visit a woman who says she was barren before she took my father’s milk. Now she is pregnant and has a two-year-old son. I coax the cattle to remain still while the camera examines their organs and udders.

In the evening Anna stands me with my back to the herd and my face to the camera and asks me to talk about my childhood. I recount the loneliness of life without mother, brothers or sisters. I describe long days spent watching the herd. And short, happy days as a schoolboy at the college in paradise valley.

‘Talk of the freemartins,’ says Anna. ‘Are they sacred to the people here? What is the magic of their milk? Tell it in your own words. Tell us what you learned as a child.’

‘They’re not sacred,’ I say. ‘They upset the herds, that’s all. They’re eccentric. They’re licentious. They’re lunatic cows. People fear them. And where there is fear there is also superstition. It all began generations ago. Nobody can say how and why.’

‘Can you suggest how and why?’

‘People like to be reassured,’ I say. ‘They like to believe that solutions to problems can be bought by the jar.’

‘But when your father dies, you will follow the tradition of your family and take over the herd?’

I squint into the sun and shake my head. I stand, dear friends in the city, at the centre of my inheritance. Now, at last, you see it. Intangible. Incredible. Uncashable. Each year my father hands me bundles of banknotes from the safe and packs me off to the city and the university. He does not grasp the meaning of this money. All he understands is the ritual of transaction. All that he expects in return is that, when he is old, I will come back to his hollow of land and pummel these barren teats for local rewards. His is wealth at the expense of science. His are riches that exile freedom. What must I do, fellow students? Decay here by the light of a thousand oil lamps? Or cast off my inheritance, remain with you and your fathers, put my faith in science and modernity?

‘I will not accept the burden,’ I say to the camera and the people of Sweden. ‘My father is the last in line.’


Your fathers have been solicitous. Still I am invited to their tables at nightclubs and to their airconditioned lounges at home. They serve freshly ground coffee from Colombia and delicate liqueurs from far-flung airport shops. Since the television transmission in Sweden I have become a bar-room celebrity. My photograph has appeared in local papers. One government minister condemns my people for their barbarous superstition. Another applauds them for their sense of tradition. A zoologist on the radio argues that the isolation of freemartins makes good sense as their presence unnerves the docility of cows. Another claims that they should be prized above all others as they are good beef cattle, putting on meat with eunuch ease. A scientific commission should be formed, he says, to investigate ways of breeding freemartins. Rival editorials in the newpapers call either for Government Help to Protect National Traditions or for A Battle Against Quackery. It is no longer possible for me, fellow students, to hide my inheritance from you. I abandon my reticence. Instead, I exaggerate my lofty manner and the precision of my dress. I have my hands manicured, and powder my forehead. I grow a moustache in the European fashion. I suppress my telltale ps and bs. Any enquiries about the herd I refer to my father. It is his business, not mine. My business is the mastery of Biology.

It is your father, Feni, who suggests the rationalization of my inheritance. ‘Don’t sniff at money, Lowdo,’ he tells me, ‘especially your own. Remain intimate with your wealth. You want to be a city boy with an office, a bank account, and a Peugeot. You admire scientific curiosity, business initiative, modern industriousness. But all our business fortunes are based as much as yours on superstition. What is superstition but misdirected reverence? Your clients overvalue bogus milk. Ours overvalue transistors, motor cars, fashionable clothes, travel. This is the key to business. Unearth what is overvalued, amass it and sell at inflated prices. Your forefathers were the first of the modern businessmen. They grasped this basic principle of trade. You should be boastful, not shamefaced. What will you do? Renounce your inheritance and its possibilities and live in modesty here? How will you survive? Where will you work? Who needs biologists in a city of trade?’ He points at my polished shoes, my expensive jacket, my jewellery, the weightless antique coffee cups on the glass-top table, at you, Feni, sitting quietly in your best silk dress in the courtyard with a Parisian magazine. ‘What will become of this?’

And so he advises me to modernize, to deputize, to expand. ‘When your father dies,’ he says, ‘keep the herd, but stay here in the city, a free man, at ease, comfortable, amongst your own kind, and run those freemartins, as a business.’

‘But the milk is no good!’

Your father laughs. ‘This coffee is no good,’ he says. ‘It makes my heart race. It tastes bitter. Why do I drink it? Habit and superstition. I believe it sobers me when I have been drinking. I believe it sharpens me up when I am tired. I believe that an offer of coffee to friends equals the hospitality of a thousand welcomes. You and science would tell me that coffee doesn’t sober, doesn’t relax, doesn’t revive, doesn’t welcome, that it shortens my life, costs a fortune, disrupts the economy of Brazil, and if left too long in the coffee pot will corrode the silver. But try to stop me drinking it! I don’t care for the dictatorship of science. Nor do your neighbours. Freedom of choice. Deceive yourself at will, that’s the motto of the nation. Harness superstition. Turn it to your advantage. Milk it dry!’


Nowadays I do not dream of the wide valley and the ragged heads of sunflowers but of a white, cool office with banks of telephones and the clatter of tills and typists. I see myself with friends in an anteroom. I rehearse long conversations with the fellow students of my own sons and daughters at the university. I am unhurried with them and gently inquisitive. They love so much to sit and talk with me about their studies or their trips to Europe.

I imagine, too, my homelands far off in the scrub. There, a salaried farm-manager minds my herd and sells measured jars of freemartin milk at fixed prices (cash only) to newly-weds and the childless. I see a lorry with my name on its side collecting supplies of milk each month and bringing it to my shop in the city. Freemartin milk and fresh mullein are now available to all. My best customers here are the tourists who, if they are too timid or cynical to invest in a sachet of dried milk, are eager to spend dollars and francs and marks on coloured postcards of the herd and ‘lucky’ scraps of freemartin hide. I have written and had printed an illustrated booklet on our family and its traditions. It sells well. My dream flowers and expands. My sons and daughters consider their inheritances with placid equanimity.

But in more sober moments I do not dream. I mark time. Each year I visit my father during the Harvest Vacation and contemplate our cattle, infertile and refractory, as they butt and low amongst the tough grasses and the stunted thorns. In the village now they call me Talking Skull. My neighbours are always keen to share my father’s jokes. They mean no harm. My father, rather than weakening and ageing, seems to grow stronger and more vigorous. Has he grown a little taller, even? He has no grey hairs. His back is square and straight. His teeth and eyesight have not deteriorated. I fancy that he fears his heirs and has determined to live for ever.
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