Fiela's Childby Dalene Matthee
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Set in nineteenth-century rural Africa, Fiela's Child tells the gripping story of Fiela Komoetie and a white, three-year old child, Benjamin, whom she finds crying on her doorstep. For nine years Fiela raises Benjamin as one of her own children. But when census takers discover Benjamin, they send him to an illiterate white family of woodcutters who claim him as their son. What follows is Benjamin's search for his identity and the fundamental changes affecting the white and black families who claim him.
"Everything a novel can be: convincing, thought-provoking, upsetting, unforgettable, and timeless."—Grace Ingoldby, New Statesman
"Fiela's Child is a parade that broadens and humanizes our understanding of the conflicts still affecting South Africa today."—Francis Levy, New York Times Book Review
"A powerful creation of time and place with dark threads of destiny and oppression and its roots in the almost Biblical soil of a storyteller's art."—Christopher Wordsworth, The Guardian
"The characters in the novel live and breathe; and the landscape is so brightly painted that the trees, birds, elephants, and rivers of old South Africa are characters themselves. A book not to miss."—Kirkus Reviews
Read an Excerpt
By Dalene Matthee
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1986 Dalene Matthee
All rights reserved.
The day the child disappeared, the fog came up early and by midday it seemed as if the Forest was covered in a thick white cloud. Elias van Rooyen put down his axe and went to sit in the shed on the pile of yellowwood beams that had already been finished. It was no good working when the fog was that thick – the wood got damp and would not yield to the axe. And besides, he did not believe in a man working himself to death, as the woodcutters did. He believed in a good plan and a bit of luck, although luck was rare in the Forest.
'Barta!' he called towards the house, 'bring me some coffee, I'm done for!'
The fog was really thick. He could only just make out the house from the shed; just enough to see that he would have to fix the roof before the coming winter, before the whole lot collapsed on top of them. Somehow he would have to get hold of a few secondhand sheets of corrugated iron. The winter before Barta had kept on moaning about the children sniffing and coughing because of the damp in the wooden house.
Of the four families that had built houses on Barnard's Island, he was the only one who was not a woodcutter. And he was the only one that earned real money instead of having to barter for everything with the two wood buyers in the village. Not that he thought himself much better off than the woodcutters for the money he made from the beams he cut was only just enough to live on if he trapped the meat for his pot himself. But making beams was far easier than cutting wood and it also meant that you could sleep in your own bed every night instead of in a shack somewhere in the Forest.
When he heard Barta coming with the coffee, he quickly grabbed the hatchet and examined the handle so as to look busy. Barta could never understand that you sometimes had to sit down quietly in order to think properly.
'Elias, isn't Lukas with you?' she asked, standing at the open end of the shed with the coffee and looking worried.
'No. You can put the coffee down on the block there, I've got my hands full.'
She was still good-looking, he thought to himself as she walked slowly away – she would have to get some shoes.
Perhaps he should get Krisjan Small's eldest boy from Lily Valley Bush to come and help him at the beams so that he could produce more. Krisjan's boy was used to working for coffee and sugar and meal and might as well earn them from him. On the other hand it meant putting him up and the house was too small as it was. The children were getting big and before long he would have to get some planks and add a third room. Krisjan's boy could not walk from Lily Valley Bush every day – he would only get to work at sun down.
He started thinking further ahead; the only way a man could make himself a decent bit of extra in the Forest was to buy a gun and shoot elephants. Bigfeet. For the tusks. But how did you find money for a gun, powder and shot? And how did you get past the wood buyers in the village to get the tusks to the ships to sell them? The ships paid well for ivory but according to the buyers they were the only ones with licences to deliver anything to them. Martiens Willemse had told him it was a bloody lie, for the wood buyers had to smuggle the elephant tusks to the ships too.
'Pa ...' Willem, the eldest of his four children, came in under the shed. 'Pa, ma says Lukas is not in the house.'
'Go and see if he's with Aunt Malie. And blow your nose!'
If you did get to the ships at night and deliver the tusks, how did you get back through the Forest afterwards in the dark without the elephants trampling you?
To the north of the clearing he heard Anna Olwage shouting at her bunch of children as usual. Maybe he should get Anna and Dawid's eldest boy, Kransie, to come help him at the beams. Kransie was a lad of about fifteen and Dawid's team had too many hands as it was. They were struggling.
'Pa, Lukas isn't with Aunt Malie.'
'Did you ask at Aunt Anna's place?'
'Why do I have to tell you what to do all the time?'
A man had to struggle until his children were big enough to help him and there was still a long wait ahead for him. Willem, his eldest, was only six and Kristoffel five; Lukas was three and Nina still on the breast. Willem was old enough to help Barta in the vegetable garden but the children were of little use to him yet. He would ask Dawid about Kransie. The boy would have it easy with him; making beams was not ox labour like cutting wood, sawing it, dragging it out to load it on to the wagon and then getting it to the village.
'Elias?' Barta emerged from the fog like a ghost.
'What is it this time, woman?' Couldn't they see that he was busy?
'Have you seen the child?'
'I told you he wasn't here. I'm sure you haven't looked everywhere. Go and see if he's with Sofie.'
'I've been to Sofie's, he isn't there.'
Half an hour later all was confusion: women were searching and calling out; people were running into each other in the fog, their faces filled with anxiety; everyone was asking, 'Have you found him yet?'
He told them the child must be somewhere in one of the houses, that he must have fallen asleep somewhere. If only they would stop carrying on like this and give him a chance to look for the child properly they would soon find him. If only the fog would clear a bit so that everything did not look so misshapen and if only Barta would not keep on walking up and down and calling out as she did. The child was not missing.
And then Malie had to come and make things worse:
'It happened to my aunt back in Karatara's Bush. She thought the child had gone with the others to collect firewood and by the time she discovered that he was missing, it was late afternoon. Took them more than a week to find the little body. Frozen to death. We all went to the funeral.'
Barta put her fist to her mouth and bit into her knuckles.
'How often must I tell you that the child is not missing!' he said, for the hundredth time. 'Go back to your houses, all of you, look under every bed and search everywhere!'
'We've already done that, Elias,' Sofie van Huysteen said.
'Go and look again.'
Old Aunt Gertie, Anna's mother-in-law, took Nina from Barta; Barta did not even seem to notice.
'I don't understand how you could have let the child out of your sight, Barta!' he scolded, in despair.
'I was trying to get the fire going, Elias, the wood was damp – I thought the child was with you.'
He went into the Forest at the south end of the clearing, calling out as he walked. The child is not missing, he told himself, trying to repress his fears. The child is not missing.
He went to the west side of the Island. Then east. Every time he walked a little deeper into the undergrowth. When he searched to the north, Aunt Gertie walked with him, calling the child's name.
'He can't hear us because of the fog, auntie,' he said. It was getting harder not to worry. 'The child must be playing somewhere.'
'Elias, we must turn back. Anna will have to fetch the men; they must come and help us search before it's too late.'
'But they're cutting at Draaikloof, Aunt Gertie!' he said, trying to stop her. 'It's four hours' walking from here and the child is not missing. You're imagining things!'
'The child is missing.' The way she said it, her certainty, shattered the last of his resistance. When you grew up in the Forest, you knew what awaited a child that wandered from a footpath or a sled-path when there was no one with him. When the fog closed in, you kept your children in the house.
'I can't understand how he could have just disappeared, Aunt Gertie! I can't believe it.' He was still trying to deny it.
'A child, Elias, is like a tortoise. You think he's slow, but he's gone before you know it. Anna must go and fetch the men.'
'I'll go myself.'
'No. Barta's going to need you. Anna will go. She knows the footpaths and she knows what to do when there are bigfeet along the way.'
Malie and Sofie and he searched and called out for the child until dark. Aunt Gertie stayed with Barta. They put Barta to bed and gave her some wild-bughu tea every now and again and saw to it that she stayed warm. Later it seemed as if she could no longer cry, she just made the most awful sounds, like a puppy dog whimpering. He told her to stop it – they would find the child.
But the house became like a house of death. Aunt Gertie sent someone to fetch ash-bread from her house; Sofie brought a brew of coffee and took Nina home with her; Malie brought a bowl of honey and a few cooked sweet potatoes.
Willem and Kristoffel stood bewildered in front of the hearth.
'The last I saw of little Lukas was at the corner of the house when ma gave him a sweet potato. He stood there eating it,' Willem kept saying.
'Kristoffel, where did you last see him?'
'Here in the house, Pa. He was playing with his stones.'
Malie sighed, despairing. 'Only the good Lord in heaven could know the whereabouts of a little child in this vast Forest tonight – the same thing happened to my aunt. At Karatara.'
'I don't understand it, Malie. I should at least have found his tracks.'
'There are many children on the Island, Elias, many tracks.'
'I still don't understand it.'
'What about Flip Lourens who disappeared that time? Same kind of fog. They still haven't found a trace of him.'
'Flip didn't get lost, Malie. Everybody reckons it must have been the bigfeet that killed him. Flip would never have got lost, he knew the Forest too well.'
'That's the other thing that's worrying me, Elias: the bigfeet. All week they've been tearing off bark and branches and eating around here. They would not even feel it if they stepped on a child in this dark night.'
'Elephants don't step on children,' Aunt Gertie said.
Anna and the men were back at midnight. Malie's husband, Martiens, took over and gave the orders while they had something to eat, standing up as they were.
'The fog's clearing,' Martiens said. 'I'll search to the south. Dawid, you go west. Koos to the north and you, Elias, you go east. Every hundred paces we'll call out and on the tenth call we'll turn back and move over fifty yards or so. Are the lanterns ready, Malie?'
'Yes,' she said, 'Sofie and I got them ready.'
'What about the bigfeet?' Aunt Gertie wanted to know.
'The nearest ones are in Gouna's Bush,' Dawid said. 'We are safe over here.'
Martiens gave the women orders too: 'Anna can go and lie down, she's had a hard walk. Aunt Gertie must watch over Barta. Malie, you and Sofie make a big fire in the middle of the Island; if the child has fallen asleep somewhere and wakes up, he'll see the glow and come back.'
By morning, the fog was gone, except for a few patches in the deepest gorges. Sofie's husband, Koos, left for Deep Walls at daybreak to tell the nearest forester about the missing child. By midday, fourteen woodcutters were taking part in the search and on the next morning the constable came from the village to help as well – the forester had sent a message to the magistrate in the village. Towards the evening they heard the constable calling for help in a gorge near Jonker's Mountain and had to go and get him out, battered and totally lost.
When they got him back to the Island, he addressed them all:
'I'm afraid you will have to accept that the child can no longer be alive.'
'How can you decide, mister,' Martiens flared up, 'whether a child is still alive or not? In this Forest a child is tougher than you think.'
On the fourth day twenty-four men were searching; all of them woodcutters except Elias and the forester, Mr Kapp. On the fifth day, there were thirty. Wherever the news had spread through the Forest, the woodcutters laid down their axes and came to help. On the sixth day there were forty.
And at the end of the eighth day it was Martiens who took it upon himself to say what had to be said:
'He can no longer be alive now.'
Malie and Sofie had to support Barta between the two of them. Barta looked old and forlorn and exhausted, and she was clothed in black, borrowed from Aunt Gertie.
Elias just hung his head and shook it slowly from side to side, as if refusing to admit it to the very end.
Seven months later, in August 1865, heavy rains fell over the Forest and shortly after that the forester came to tell him that parts of a skeleton belonging to a smallish child had been found amongst the driftwood along the Gouna River. But it could have been part of a baboon's skeleton.CHAPTER 2
Benjamin had always known that he was his parents' hand-child. Like the hand-lamb the ewe does not want that has to be hand-fed. He had always known it, but it never mattered because he was just like Dawid and Tollie and Kittie and Emma in the house.
They lived in the Long Kloof and the Long Kloof lay between the mountains that stretched from west to east for a hundred miles long. Wolwekraal was on the sunset-side of the Kloof and his mother always said it was the better side. The only trouble was that the stupid Laghaans also lived on that side.CHAPTER 3
Only in retrospect did Fiela take account of the omens – she did not recognize them at first. The puff-adder at the back door the day before had taken a dozen blows to smash its head in. It did not occur to her that it was Satan's own tidings; she took it as being summer and snake-time. On top of that, the hawk came and caught the most beautiful chicken of the whole brood. Omens that should have warned her, but her mind was on the ostrich and she did not heed the warnings.
The horse-cart came from the west down the Kloof, the children and the ostrich from the east. She was standing up at the house, trying to judge who would reach the road branching off to the house first, the cart or the children. The ostrich was going at a good pace and the children, waving their thorn-tree branches to keep her in the right direction, had to run to keep up with her. Benjamin was right in front of course.
'Just look at Benjamin, Selling! Right in the way of the ostrich after I had expressly told him he could go on condition that he stayed at the back!'
'Leave the child, Fiela, he's not one for staying at the back. That cart has been up and down the Kloof the whole week. I don't know it.'
'Pedlars. There are more of them around here these days. If it goes on like this there will be a buyer for every ostrich feather before long.'
The children and the ostrich reached the road first and Fiela's hands were fidgeting with excitement under her apron.
'She's beautiful, Selling. Perhaps a little skinny round the backside but we'll get her nice and fat, just wait and see.'
'It's too far to see what she looks like, Fiela – seems to me the cart is turning up this way.'
'If they're pedlars looking for hides and things to buy, you tell them straight out we're dealing with Rossinski.'
'There are quite a few rock-rabbit hides ready.'
'Fine, they can have them but not for under two pence a hide.'
The heat was running in waves above the hill-tops on the other side of the Kloof. Towards Diepkloof, to the east, a whirlwind spun up dust along the road and then suddenly died down again. When she looked up, the hawk was hanging almost motionless in the sky above the yard.
'Scoundrel!' she shouted to him, 'caught my best chicken when my back was turned yesterday, hey? Go and try your luck somewhere else today, I've shut them in!'
'The cart's coming this way, Fiela.'
'Not a single hide for under two pennies.'
Down in the valley the ostrich suddenly swerved to the right with the children following at a pace that made the dust fly from under their feet.
'They'll have trouble getting her here,' Fiela said with a smile, walking up the slope behind the house to the chicken-coop.
The summer was a harsh one. She looked up at the bare, rough, red-brown hills above the house and saw the mist trailing over the top and disappear again against the blue of the sky. It was as if the heat on the Kloof side of the mountains would not allow even a shred of mist to come over and give a little relief from the heat. Why it had pleased the good Lord to put a mountain between the Kloof and relief, God alone knew. On the seaward side of the mountain he had planted with a lavish hand, made it rain and sprout till a forest had sprung up, stretching for miles and miles in every direction. But by the time he made the Kloof side, God had had nothing left but stones and dust and wagon trees and rhinoceros bush and aloes.
Excerpted from Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee. Copyright © 1986 Dalene Matthee. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Dalene Matthee, born in South Africa in 1938, is the author of a collection of short stories, Die Judasbok, and five novels, including Circles in a Forest and The Mulberry Forest.
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I love this book, I keep lending out my copy and most of the time I don't get it back.
I was assign this book for school, and it's my very favorite book from school. It's a very touching book, and you will be so happy in the end.