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An extraordinary, literary memoir from a gay white South African, coming of age at the end of apartheid in the late 1970s
Glen Retief’s childhood was at once recognizably ordinary— and brutally unusual. Raised in the middle of a game preserve where his father worked, Retief’s warm nuclear family was a preserve of its own, against chaotic forces just outside its borders: a childhood friend was also the leader of a death squad, while his cultured grandfather quoted Shakespeare over cocktails and abused Glen’s sister at bedtime.
But it was when Retief was sent to boarding school, that he was truly exposed to human cruelty and frailty. When the prefects were caught torturing younger boys, they invented "the jack bank,” where underclassmen could save beatings and draw on them later to atone for their supposed infractions. Retief writes movingly of the complicated emotions and politics in this punitive all-male world, and of how he navigated them, even as he began to realize that his sexuality was different than his peers’.
"Probing deeply into his personal memories of race, sexuality, and violence, creative writing instructor Retief has written a potent, evocative chronicle of his youth."—Publishers Weekly
"Eloquent...readers everywhere will be caught by the searing detail about family, friendship, sex and love."—Booklist
"Visceral and emotionally complex—an impressive first book."—Kirkus Reviews
"Retief has a subtle, skillful style."—Library Journal
“A remarkable memoir with the deeply resonant literary power of the finest fiction. The Jack Bank is an important book by a supremely gifted writer.”—Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain
“This moving book explores the emotions of exile as few stories about leaving home do. A passionate writer, Retief turns his tale from attachment to detachment, from letting go to letting be.”—Thomas Larson, author of The Saddest Music Ever Written
“One of those books that you never forget and never stop talking about. Retief belongs in the pantheon of white African writers Alexandra Fuller, Peter Godwin, Coetzee, and Gordimer.”—Bob Shacochis, National Book Award-winning author of The Immaculate Invasion
“Glen Retief’s Jack Bank is a transgressive, harrowing and illuminating work of literary art. In a language marked by a brutal childhood in the last years of the apartheid regime, and with uncommon wisdom, Retief’s epiphanic narrative draws us into regions of cultural importance beyond the scope of traditional memoir. Thus, he changes what we imagine this genre to be, allowing it to become something truer.”—Carolyn Forché, author of The Country Between Us
"This is one of the best memoirs I've read in years, difficult to put down, riveting... Unforgettable, lyrical and beautifully written... I'll be shocked if The Jack Bank is not hailed as one of the best books of the year."—Steve Yarbrough, author of Safe from the Neighbors
The Weight of Elephants
“We live,” says Miss Jeanette, leaning forward and lowering her voice the way she does when she wants to impress us, “in one of the largest unspoiled wildernesses in the world. Aren’t we lucky, children? Just look around.”
She throws her arms wide open, like a prophetess presenting her tribe with a fulfilled promise. The entire class—all twelve or so of us Standard Threes, or fifth-graders—are standing in the school backyard, along the perimeter fence. Tall green ficus, marula, and jackal berry trees reach up towards the pale African noonday sky. Masked weaver nests, lumpy, wheelbarrow-sized hay sculptures, dangle from a spindly fever tree. Birds hop, chirp, and chatter around us—black-eyed bulbuls, tiny brown manikins, and bright blue glossy starlings; bee-eaters sipping at coral tree blossoms; hadedah ibises cawing and chuckling as they rise from their stick nests. From biology class we know there are 517 species of birds in our Kruger National Park—almost as many as in the entire continent of North America. Two thousand different kinds of plants populate our plains and gullies. A hundred and fifty mammals, more than in any other national park in the world, wander around our neighborhood: leopards, elephants, and aardvarks; sable antelope, giraffes, and monkeys. Could the Garden of Eden have been so abundant?
None of us nine-year-olds bother to look at any of this, though. We have heard this lecture from Miss Jeanette before, on how fortunate we are to live here; on what a great treasure for humanity all of this is—this sliver of land, shaped like a thin, pregnant amputee, lodged up in the northeastern corner of South Africa. We have heard how the entire state of Israel could fit inside this wilderness; we’ve heard how Wales could squeeze snugly into its swollen underbelly. Mr. Flip, the Standard Four teacher, has explained in assembly that it would take two million rugby fields to cover the entire expanse—one for every person living in Johannesburg. Who cares? When is the bell going to ring for the end of school? More importantly, what will my mother have cooked today for lunch?
Then, at last, the bell jangles, and instantly we fly, helter-skelter, in the glaring white sunlight, back into the classroom to grab our books. I pull my bike from the rack. On the way home, I speed past the Dutch Reformed church with its flying buttresses; the cricket and rugby field, with its family of warthogs playing in the sprinklers; and the house on the corner where my Auntie Merle, my Uncle Ian, and my cousins Lorna and Neil live. I head down the main street, Soenie Street, and tear downhill on Grysbok. I dash across the low water bridge—this is where I’ve seen hyenas and jackals; once I flew off this bridge on the way to school and skinned my palms and knees on the river sand, but today I fly gracefully across, a bee-eater diving for a sawfly, a kingfisher darting nestwards. Left again, and uphill: now I follow the course of the dry stream bed we call the spruitjie, which runs right in front of my family’s home and winds its way through the village until it joins the wide Nwatswishaka. Thisspruitjie of ours is lined with bushwillows and silverleafs. On cloudy days the silverleafs glint a dull nickel color, the shade of twenty-cent coins coated with dust.
And now, here I am; I’m home, huffing and panting, by the newly built ranch house on the right, the one with the single knob thorn tree on the front corner by the barbecue and the lone appleleaf bush in the front yard, with the hollowed-out rock that serves as a birdbath. Corrugated zinc roofing slopes upward. I enter the wide wire gate, the one my parents keep closed at night against animals. I drop my bike on the lawn, next to my sister’s and brother’s—they must be home from school already. The impala grazing the lawn take no notice of me. I open the back kitchen screen door. Through the kitchen, with the linoleum-patterned floor and the pine breakfast set in front of fridges and chest freezers; through the TV room, with the kudu paintings and recliners; down the dark passageway, to my bedroom, where I drop my schoolbag next to the headboard with the Rand McNally globe and the Illustrated Children’s Bible.
In the dining room, back at the other end of the house, the rest of the family is already seated, and Mommy’s dishing up macaroni and cheese. The room smells rich and savory. Thick tubes of egg-filled rigatoni steam on my plate. Salad lies alongside the pasta: iceberg lettuce and red medallions of tomato and neatly peeled wedges of cucumber.
“What did you learn in school today?” Mommy asks. Mommy is auburn and tanned; shorter than Daddy, or most of the other women in the village—she likes to wear apricot-colored blouses and neat, white shorts. Her skin is the sorrel hue of river sand when you splash water on it; her eyes brown, like bark. Love radiates out from her like the heat in her hair, like her perfume, which smells of roses, or is it lavender?
“Nothing,” I tell Mommy. School might as well not exist for me; all I can think of is the food. “I don’t remember.”
“Nothing?” This is Daddy. Daddy is taller, much lighter-complexioned than Mommy, and he has a small belly from beer and barbecues. He has a mole growing out the left side of his nose and lots of tiny dark hairs on his arms and legs. On his head, his hair is thick and brown, but he is starting to go bald in the middle: Mommy says soon he’ll be a kaalkop, a barehead, like Kojak, her favorite police detective. Daddy’s official job here in the Kruger National Park is “quantitative biologist,” meaning he programs computers for the research department. Sometimes he also gets to help out his brother-in-law, Uncle Ian, a biologist, with field research.
Daddy loves us, too, but in a different way: he loves to tease and play with us, and to ask us questions about the world.
“Who just became the first female British prime minister?” he’ll ask us.
“Who sings ‘Love You Inside and Out’?” The Bee Gees! Now, around the dining room table, he lowers his spectacles and stares at me, wide-eyed and blinking.
“All day long, Glennie? Six hours with Miss Jeanette—nothing?”
Lisa—two years younger than me; blond, skinny, and pale—now begins to softly guffaw. David, who just recently turned four—stocky and brown-haired, he’s still a baby; Lisa often carries him around, spread-eagled, in a blanket on her back, like a Swazi mother—picks up Lisa’s thread of laughter and starts to splutter, with his mouth still full of macaroni. I can see it: soon he’s going to mess food. At this age I have little time for David. He runs inside with mud on his arms and ants crawling on his chest. Right now, for example, I know he has no idea why he’s giggling.
But Daddy’s still looking at me. “Just something about rugby fields, Daddy,” I say, now, ladling a second helping of macaroni and cheese onto my plate. “Two million of them. The size of the park. It’s the same story Mr. Louis always tells. I’ve explained to Daddy before.”
* * *
We kids are cavalier like this. As far as we are concerned, children everywhere have parents who work for the National Parks Board; uncles who are global elephant experts—Uncle Ian is one of the people with the responsibility for deciding how many elephant breeding herds need to get shot annually to preserve the vegetation. Why wouldn’t other kids have houses like ours, filled with wildlife memorabilia? Mommy and Daddy’s rhino ashtrays, with kidney-shaped depressions in their backs; Merle and Ian’s end table sewn out of a stuffed elephant leg.
If you ask us, “What does watching a movie mean?” we’ll say: “Oh, those boring flicks!”—meaning the nature documentaries that get screened over and over again outdoors in the tourist camp. If you query us about restaurants, we’ll say something about buffalo pies with gravy on the verandah of the camp cafeteria—or, only on the most special occasions, Sunday prix-fixe menus in the tourist restaurant: impala steaks, stuffed guinea fowl.
Not a single thing is strange or different to us. Once a month or so, on a Saturday morning, Lisa, David, and I, and our cousins Lorna and Neil, clamber on the back of a bakkie, a pickup truck. We ride down rutted gravel firebreaks through red bush scrub into rhino territory and stop by dried dung heaps. Here, we clamber out in a hurry—“Last one there is a rotten old maid!” We gather whole armfuls of rhino dung, which smells of dry leaves and grass and has the consistency of caked dirt. As the morning passes the pile of dung on the back of the truck grows higher, until at last the five of us sit like kings and queens on our throne of feces, pointing at the ridges, kopjes, and coves of our domain—the green marulas and the dry brown mud pans. Back home, we help spread the excrement in our parents’ flower beds, as fertilizer. Surely this isn’t exotic? Three or so years ago, when our family still lived in Durban—this was when Daddy still worked as a computer programmer for the company in the skyscraper and I attended a suburban convent—I remember we were always picking up dog pooh in plastic bags.
True, that wasn’t for fertilizer: “The people were supposed to pick up after themselves,” Mommy always says when she talks about that time. And she shudders.
But now, on weekday afternoons, when we kids spot a giant monitor lizard, for fun we corner it against the house wall. Monitor lizards, which we call lekkewaans, are reptiles big as a child’s leg, with black tongues that shoot out a third of their body length, and dark brown diamond patches on their scaly backs. When they get frightened and angry, they blow themselves up, and their eyes start to bulge. We throw small sticks, pebbles, and sand at these things until they snap, hiss, and frighten us away. How deliciously weird these creatures are! How fabulously monstrous! Yet these, too, do not strike us as altogether extraordinary—don’t children everywhere get to play with these miniature brontosaurs from a National Geographic illustration?
Or still one more instance: the Friday and Saturday night backyard braais, which are such a social staple in this village. At these barbecues, we children run around in the front yard on the lawn, while the grown-ups talk about boring things like politics and taxes. Jackals cry nearby in the darkness: a soulful, bewildering cacophony of yelps that reminds me of babies’ howling. Fireflies dart around the shadowy sausage tree with its dark, pendulous salamis; tambotie beans warm in our palms and then jump around of their own accord, animated by the microscopic worms that burrow into them. When we look up, we see a sparkling spillage of stars—the Milky Way, wide and luminous, covering half the heavens, the Southern Cross perched above the treeline like a skew-spun kite. What if someone told us only a tiny minority of humanity—nobody in the star-deprived Northern Hemisphere, to begin with, and nobody living in dense, humid rainforests or neon-lit metropolises—ever got to see stars like these?
“What’s a Northern Hemisphere?” we’d probably ask. “What’s the purpose of a galaxy?”
One evening, when my sister, brother, and I are sitting in the living room doing homework, our phone rings. It is Mr. Louis, the school principal, saying a journalist from the South African Broadcasting Corporation is staying in the tourist camp and has asked to interview an English-speaking kid about what it’s like to grow up in the game reserve. Would my parents mind bringing me over to his house so the journalist can meet me?
In Mr. Louis’s book-lined study, the tall, blond woman is dressed in a plain, pleated red jacket and skirt. Instantly I sense something different about her—something powerful and citified. The adult women I am used to encountering either dress in long white floral dresses, like the Afrikaner aunties, or in casual, fashionable modern clothes, like Mommy and Auntie Merle.
“So what’s it like to be a kid in the Kruger National Park?” the journalist asks now, her voice all syrupy and expectant, her blue eyes thoughtful, friendly, interested.
I have no idea what she wants to know. Is she asking me how school is going?
“It’s nice,” I reply. “I like it.”
“What are some of your favorite games and hobbies?”
“Monopoly. I also like playing vroteier.” Vroteier is a game where we sit in a circle and an outside runner drops a clump of tissue paper behind an unsuspecting player.
“How about on the weekends? What does a game reserve kid do in his spare time?”
“Ride my bike! I have a BMX Powerline!” She shifts in her seat, looks down at some notes. I have a feeling I’m saying something wrong, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what.
“Have you ever run into a wild animal in the village?”
“Ja. Impala.” Perhaps I am thinking merely of the animals I saw that day, because inexplicably I decline to mention the lone elephant bull I once saw ambling down the road towards the low-water bridge, or the hippopotamus that came into our yard one night when I left the gate open, and that my father had to scare off by banging pots and pans together.
On the evening the interview is supposed to be featured on the English service’s Radio Today program, the extended family gathers at my aunt and uncle’s house, beside the Kenwood hi-fi set, with my aunt pouring all the grown-ups gin-and-tonics and the kids passion fruit squash. A political segment plays. The American president, Jimmy Carter, is having some kind of trouble with people in Iran: there are students misbehaving there, shouting and demonstrating. There are updates about rugby and cricket. Then they play the jangly melody that signals the end of the program.
“Not quite the radio star yet, hey?” asks my Aunt Merle. She rumples my hair. “Don’t worry. They have so many interviews—they can’t possibly run them all. Maybe they’ll play it next time, Glennie.”
But deep inside my chest I know differently. There, under my ribs, a truth niggles: I said the wrong things. I missed the whole point of the conversation, and there is no reason to play back my responses. I am supposed to proclaim, like Miss Jeanette does: We are so privileged to live in the majesty of creation. I am supposed to state: This is like heaven for a kid to grow up in.
* * *
It is not that we have complete freedom in this paradise. A web of rules and regulations exists to protect us from the risks of living in an unfenced settlement. We are not allowed to play in the storm pipes near the house—mysterious, fascinating, concrete cylinders laden with river sand and pebbles. Warthogs are said to nest there, and a mother warthog protecting its young is easily capable of tusking open a child’s intestines. We are not allowed to leave the village limits: here, among the streets and houses, it is assumed that the human hubbub will keep away the really dangerous animals, but in the neighboring veld, buffalo, elephant, and lions all roam freely. We are to avoid sitting on logs or stumps for fear of disturbing a black mamba, whose bite can kill a grown man in half an hour, or a puffadder, whose toxins can rot away your flesh and turn a leg black as charcoal. Every evening, the minute the sun begins to set, we are to head back indoors. At night only a fool would be about on foot. Harry Wolhuter, the first game ranger here, got mauled by a pride of lions and then had to strap himself with his belt to a tree branch he had climbed to escape them, so he wouldn’t fall out when he lost consciousness.
Pythons, they say, swallowed unattended toddlers here in the early days. A child’s foot sinking into a muddy pool along a path can lead to infection with bilharzia—a disease where parasites slowly eat the liver and vital organs. Mosquito bites, especially those suffered in the early evening, can lead to cerebral malaria, where infected red blood cells stop up the brain. Spitting cobras can rear up and deliver streams of blinding cytotoxin straight into wide, transfixed eyes. The button spider, smaller than the surface of a lapel pin, can deliver enough neurotoxin to a child’s sleeping neck to land her in hospital.
Examples abound of the consequences of recklessness. Tom Yssel, the game ranger from Nwanedzi who stops by our house when he’s in the village to stock up on groceries, has a misshapen left leg and gets around on crutches. He was fishing in the Sabie River with some friends when a crocodile grabbed his leg and began to pull him under. He would have drowned if not for the courage and skill of his buddies, who jammed their pocket knives into the reptile’s eyes. A maid crossed the Nwatswishaka riverbed on a footpath instead of over the low-water bridge. A buffalo charged her, tossed her, and trampled her. Four days later, in hospital, she died.
It is not exactly that we children are impervious to this ever-present peril. On languid afternoons sitting together baking mud pies behind my cousins’ house, we regale each other with stories ofboomslangs dropping out of trees and delivering their deadly poison, of hippos biting tourist rowboats in two below Victoria Falls. We older kids—Lisa and Lorna and me—share with the younger ones what we learned in biology class about how if our maids forget to iron our clothes, larvae will burrow from the cotton fibers under our skins, and one day putsi flies will break out of raised pink spots on our stomachs.
“A crocodile’s jaws are stronger than the metal ones they use to pull people out of car wrecks, hey,” I’ll say, repeating something I’ve probably heard on the playground. “Elephants, when they trample you, weigh more than a car—more than the whole house.”
But this all seems unreal to us, like witches in fairy tales. Nothing specifically bad will befall us. Even our teachers suggest as much: when I ask Miss Jeanette if a child has been killed in the village since she moved here, she replies that no, if we just follow all our parents’ instructions, there is nothing to worry about.
“You shouldn’t fret,” she says, stooping down to kiss me on the forehead. In her presence, as in Mommy’s, it is impossible to even think of the weight of elephants.
One day my siblings, my cousins, and I are walking down the shortcut through the bush to the swimming pool. I see the grass move ahead of us; I am almost certain it’s the wind, but I decide to play a prank on the other kids.
“I think—wait—something’s moving in the grass—a leopard!” I yell at the others. Lisa and Lorna do not believe me, but Neil and David begin to cry and run back towards my parents’ house. “Just playing!” I shout, running after them, realizing they are truly upset. But now it is too late; the younger kids are screaming and trembling, and when I get back home my mother washes out my mouth with soap for telling a fib.
“This isn’t a game, Glen,” she tells me firmly, placing her hand on my knee. “Can you understand that, my love? Can you see this is real?”
I nod and tell her I’m sorry. But really, in my heart, I still don’t register anything.
* * *
Miss Jeanette overhears me telling another kid about an old man who gets bitten all over by putsis and releases so many baby flies that the blue-green buzzing cloud produces an artificial night.
“What an imagination you have!” she says. “You should write these stories down instead of scaring the others!” I have written stories for fun before. In first grade, at the Durban convent, one of the nuns, Sister Jacqueline, encouraged me to come in early and write down tales of fairies, pixies, and goblins. Miss Jeanette has heard my parents talk about this, so now she suggests a revival of that tradition: I will come in a quarter an hour or so early and write extra tales in my notebook. Now, the pixies in my literary imagination have been replaced by orphaned jackal pups and marabou storks who get blown to Mauritius on jet streams.
It’s for this reason that, one crisp winter dawn, I arrive early at the gates of Skukuza Primary School. My thin green uniform sweater is pulled over my khaki shirt. My bare feet and legs are red from the cold, and my breath puffs out ahead of me. I immediately notice something strange is going on. The gate opening onto the concrete driveway that leads to the bicycle rack is bolted shut. Beside it lie a couple of abandoned bikes. Where did these riders go? Why not just open the gate, which has no padlock on it?
So I do so, and I enter the school. I certainly do not think of what I am doing as defying authority: usually I am a rule-abiding child. It is more that I don’t understand the gate. I take barely a step or two, and then arms sweep me up from behind: whoosh. I want to scream, but a hand covers my mouth. I am lifted, bookbag and all, off the ground, and then, before I even realize it, I’ve been whisked back out of the gate.
“Quiet, Retief,” whispers a deep-timbered voice I recognize as that of Mr. Flip. He lets me down, puts a finger on his lips to show me I must keep silent, and then points to the church.
“Get in there now! Run!”
I do as he says. Out of the corner of my eye I see that to my left, Miss Jeanette’s white minivan is pulling up at the front gate. Miss Dalie, the first-grade teacher, holds the door open to the church. Inside, the church is empty except for a handful of children, including another boy from my grade, Jannie de Vos.
“What’s going on?” I ask Miss Dalie.
“Lions,” she replies. “Four of them, on the basketball courts. Three females and one male. Now, get inside and stay there. We’ve called Nature Conservation.”
Inside, I work out the details: the basketball courts are merely a hundred yards or so from the bicycle rack, at the far end of the athletics track sprint line. Even if it was just for a second or two, they would have smelt me at that front gate, been aware of me. I can picture them quite clearly, lying on the black asphalt. They roll over, yawn, and swat each other, as lions do. Perhaps, one of them even crouches, alert, her tail flicking, ready to charge me.
“Were you scared?” Jannie asks me. “I saw them, hey—on the basketball courts. They looked at me with their yellow eyes. Yissis!”
I cannot bring myself to confess that I was so stupid as to open a latched gate. So I say, “Ja,” playing up the drama of my encounter. “They were walking around right near the bicycle rack. One of them roared at me, hey! I almost fell over and had a heart attack.”
* * *
But still I don’t understand. In the days and weeks after this incident, I concoct several different theories as to why the lions never charged me, roared at me, or ran away.
“They were far, hey,” says my uncle. “Also, they were probably full and sluggish from a recent kill.” He was one of the Nature Conservation officials who helped dart the lions that morning and cart them away—a process that, to our disappointment, seemed to happen in just a few minutes, allowing the teachers to order us back to our classes. “I bet they were so comfortable on that warm tar they couldn’t be bothered with a pipsqueak like you!”
But I can’t quite get my head around this thought. On the one hand, it seems simply dull: it isn’t worthy of a story in my class notebook. On the other hand—to the extent I’m able, at age nine, to consciously formulate this thought—there’s something fundamentally terrifying about my uncle’s statement. For a moment, in the hubbub of the teachers’ early response to the lions, the bicycle gate was left unguarded. I opened it, took several steps towards the lions. If just one small thing about this scenario had been different—if Mr. Flip hadn’t been nearby; if the lions had truly been around the bicycle rack; if they hadn’t been so sluggish—then bam! I would have been all blood and skin, like one of the kills we see by the roadside, shimmering with famished flies.
Mortality: the thought is still too much for me. So instead, half for fun and half in earnest, I wonder to myself if these were real lions. Perhaps they were Swazi magicians who had adopted the shapes of lions, as in the fairy tales that Sarah, my parents’ housekeeper, sometimes tells me when I sit next to her by her garden room as she eats her lunch after ours. Or perhaps, I speculate, a satellite was passing overhead. Last year, Miss Elsa, a teacher who has now left the school, told us that the communists had spacecraft in orbit around the earth, broadcasting political propaganda at inaudible frequencies that corresponded to those of the human brain. My father, when I told him this story, scoffed at it; take it from a computer scientist, he said—there is no machine capable of changing a human mind. But now, I wonder again: if Miss Elsa was right, and Daddy is wrong, could satellites like those have confused the lions and distracted them?
A superior solution presents itself to me a week or two later, though, when I pick up my Illustrated Children’s Bible and open it at the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Here, right on the opening page, a vivid color drawing presents a gray-bearded old man at the bottom of a well. Four lions—it does not escape my notice that this is precisely the number that came in to lie on the basketball courts—eye Daniel warily. But there are also two translucent angels drawn in the picture: supple, winged young men wearing tunics. One of the angels holds closed the mouth of the male lion and pushes the head of one of the females away from Daniel. The other angel is seated cross-legged between two lionesses; he has his hand between one’s shoulder blades and seems to be scratching the other on her forehead.
The Bible chapter explains: Daniel was a God-fearing Israelite, whom the Persian king threw into the lions’ den because he would not worship false gods. The next morning, Daniel got pulled out of the den without a scratch; however, when some scheming courtiers got thrown in after Daniel, the lions tore their flesh from their bodies. The moral of the story was to trust in the power of the Lord, who could work any miracle to save his loyal followers.
Was it possible that God had done something similar for me that day?
I find my mother in the kitchen, preparing supper. “Mommy, could God have sent guardian angels to protect me on the day I walked by the lions?” She pauses in her cooking.
“God can do anything, my love,” she says, reaching down to embrace me. “How exactly his power works, that’s not for us to understand. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that God loves you and doesn’t want you to be harmed.”
The answer is the one I was hoping for. That evening, as I lie in bed falling asleep, I half-close my eyes and try to sense any presences in the room besides my own. A branch rustles against the window: perhaps it is God, trying to tell me he is close to me. A shadow moves on the bedroom floor—leaves in the wind, or a phantom’s attempts at writing. Now—this comes upon me unexpected and inevitable as a sneeze—I feel completely certain, first, that God is with me in the room, and, second, that I have nothing to fear.
* * *
It wakes me before dawn: a clatter of hooves like a thunderstorm, a live creature tripping over the guy rope near my tent, unsteadying the standing pole. Something tumbles off its feet. A bone-chilling growl rips through the night as meat gets torn out of a throat—the astonishingly loud rasping saw as a ruptured windpipe hauls its last breath. The hoof patter, dying away like rain; silence returning—even the tree frogs seem to have been stilled.
The three of us—Lisa, David, and I—are sleeping alone in this small blue A-frame tent, perhaps fifty yards or so downstream from the research trailer where my parents are staying. I am older than before, probably around ten. Here, at this camp, my father is helping out with a study of the hunting and mating habits of lions. For the past five days, we have driven around in a Land Rover, getting out every five or ten minutes and sweeping around an antenna that signals the proximity and direction of collared lions and then carefully jotting down information when we saw them.
Now, in the tent, a vague fear begins to rise in me. It is all too silent. I cannot even hear any cicadas, crickets, or night birds. Beside me, in the nylon pods of their sleeping bags, Lisa and David continue breathing smoothly, evenly. David has his face pushed into the far corner of the tent. I wonder if I imagined the sawing and thundering. But no—there is the front tent pole leaning slightly over to the right as a result of whatever foundered over the guy rope.
“Mommy?” I ask again, louder this time, projecting my voice back towards the trailer.
“Glen,” comes back my father’s voice, “three lions have killed a kudu right outside your tent. There’s no need to be scared, okay? I have the gun right here, and I’m ready to shoot if I have to. But they don’t know what a tent is, so you’re safe as long as you stay inside and don’t make a noise. Okay, son? I mean it. Still now—not a word.”
“Everything will be fine, darling,” my mother adds. While my father’s voice was calm and authoritative, though—a teacher giving instructions to his pupils—my mother’s has a tremble in it: she does not completely believe her own words. Mommy’s scared. Her anxiety ignites apprehension in my own chest.
“Mommy—” I am about to ask how far away the lions are when I remember my father’s orders: no sounds at all. I lie back and listen to the quiet. At first I hear nothing. I could be underground. But then the sound comes to me, unmistakable: chewing. Saliva sucking and popping inside cheeks. Teeth gnawing against each other. A sharp cracking sound, as if of a bone breaking.
I snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag. Daddy said the tent would confuse the lions, and so, I tell myself, I am actually perfectly safe inside here. Probably the sleeping bags will confuse them, too. If I get right inside and wedge the cotton fabric of the bag under my head, then I will essentially be incomprehensible to them, an inedible lump. I lie still like this in the darkness, feeling the warmth of my sister’s body against my left shoulder. I try to picture angels among these lions, holding their jaws shut. But now a lion snarls and grunts, at what seems like no distance at all; another lion, also close but on the other side of the tent, calls out into the night—a short, low, repetitive series of grunts: the sound that, in some corner of my brain, I remember is used to call other members of the pride. These lions are powerful and enormous. My mouth is dry.
“Glen,” comes my father’s voice again. “I can’t move now, because the lions have just killed, and it’s night, and they’re hungry. If I get out now they’ll take it as a threat. But if we all just stay still for a little while, they’ll fill their stomachs, and then I’ll be able to chase them off. So stay quiet, son.”
Which I do. I continue to listen to the chewing sounds, punctuated with an occasional growl or snarl. Miraculously, or so it seems to me, my brother and sister stay asleep. Perhaps the moon comes out behind a cloud: at some point, at any rate, my head is out of my sleeping bag again, and the canvas of the tent beside me is now pale blue and luminous. A shadow pops up on it, something black, vast, and shapeless.
“Daddy!” the words choke up in my throat. No sound actually comes out of my mouth, though. Something warm runs down my leg: I must have peed into my sleeping shorts.
“Still, Glennie,” says my father.
The shadow moves away again, and quiet returns. Even the chewing sounds are gone, now; instead I hear the chirp of tree frogs and the high-pitched scraping call of franklins.
And then I must somehow have fallen asleep, for now I wake to the clamor of the Land Rover’s engine and a gunshot. Before I can even gather myself, the tent flap is open and my mother is there.
“Now!” she screams at the three of us, somehow hauling all of us out of bed at the same time. My brother is first in her arms, through the entrance to the tent and into the open door of the Land Rover. With both arms she pulls my sister to safety. I follow, jumping into the backseat of the vehicle. The door is slammed before I can blink; then my mother is in the front seat and my father is driving away with his right hand on the wheel while his left hand passes his revolver to my mother, who sticks it in the glove compartment. I look back. Immediately next to the tent, on the side on which I was sleeping, is a dead kudu. The lions have vanished. As I watch, vultures, temporarily scared off, settle back down on the kudu and begin pecking at it.
My mother is crying now. She moves from the front of the car to the back and hugs the three of us. She is bawling so much she can’t really articulate any words; between her sobs she gulps down air in short quick gasps.
“Why is Mommy crying so much?” I ask my father, and it is only then that I realize he has been weeping, too: at least his eyes are moist behind his glasses.
“Your mommy just loves you very much, Glen, and she wouldn’t want to lose you.”
“That was very, very scary for Mommy,” my mother adds.
I try to absorb this: Mommy and Daddy, despite what they shouted to me from the trailer, really did believe we could easily have been killed. An icy vacuum opens up in my chest. The savannah seems emptier.
“I need to pee-pee,” says my brother.
“Wait till Satara,” replies my father. Satara is the nearby tourist camp where we go to eat hot meals, to buy ice and groceries, and to bathe and shower. “We’ll have a boerewors breakfast there, and I’ll buy you all a carton of condensed milk.”
“Yay!” we cry. “Condensed milk!” Condensed milk is our favorite treat while camping; we like to suck it, sweet and gooey, right out of the can or carton, and let it cover our lips and drip off the ends of our chins, a viscous delight.
We drive down the bumpy firebreak and up the tarred tourist road. At Satara camp, first we use the bathrooms. Then we all sit on the verandah and eat full bacon-and-egg breakfasts, with boereworssausages and fresh-brewed coffee. For dessert, we three kids indeed get our small triangular cartons of condensed milk, which we drain through tiny straws. It is every bit as sugary and smooth as we expected it to be. If heaven has milk cows, their udders will produce liquid that tastes like this.
“Glen peed in his pants,” Lisa announces to our parents, after I confide in her about the lion shadow.
“It’s dry now,” I say, and it is: all the dampness has evaporated.
“It doesn’t matter,” says Mommy. “I really love you. The only thing I care about is that you’re okay.”
We are sitting on the lawn in front of the cafeteria verandah. Plates and cutlery clatter on the tables behind us. Tourists stand at the boards showing sightings of buffalo, rhino, and cheetah.
“Lisa and David just slept like stupid rocks,” I say, perhaps to soften my embarrassment about peeing.
“He says I’m stupid!” says Lisa. “He says I’m like a rock!”
“Stop it, kids!” Mommy says. “Can’t we just enjoy this moment together?”
Behind us, someone starts up a lawn sprinkler. A tourist argues with the cafeteria cashier over the cost of a pastry. I pick up my condensed milk carton and suck a final droplet out of it, so good it makes my eyes pinch shut. Above us, the sun is clear, golden, and luminous; the sky wide, azure, and infinite—as if for the moment, death and suffering are just illusions.
Copyright © 2011 by Glen Retief
The Weight of Elephants 1
Them and Me 20
The Killer's Nephew 47
A Man of Extraordinary Taste 73
The Jack Bank 96
Best Friends 129
The Castle 157
Black Boys of My Youth 188
Biographical Note 265
Author's Note 267