The New York Times
Skinner's Drift: A Novelby Lisa Fugard
In this beautiful first novel, Lisa Fugard paints a haunting portrait of a family careering toward disaster. She vividly describes the/b>
Ten years after leaving South Africa, the country of her birth and the place where her mother died, Eva van Rensburg returns to her dying father, a violent man whose terrible secret Eva has kept since she was a child.
In this beautiful first novel, Lisa Fugard paints a haunting portrait of a family careering toward disaster. She vividly describes the isolation of Eva's rebellious and lonely English mother; the desperation of her Afrikaner father as drought destroys his farm; the conflicts among the black farmworkers as the younger generation questions the loyalty and subservience of their elders; and the dangerous silence of a young girl who witnesses too much.
Like Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, Fugard has written a profoundly moving family drama, subtly set against the backdrop of a country in turmoil. She moves with extraordinary agility between intimate and revelatory domestic scenes and the fiercely challenging land. This is a powerful story from a stunning new writer.
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Eva pressed her forehead to the window and watched the ruffle of waves rimming the coastline recede from view as the plane nosed its way toward Johannesburg. The dirt roads were visible, clawed into a land pitted and scarred by drought. She knew the hell of driving them, how dusty and worn she'd feel after jolting along one, nothing to look at for hour upon hour but rocks and thorn trees. Maybe, if she was lucky, a jackal, a snake. Africa lay stretched beneath her like the ravaged hide of some ancient beast, and something fierce shuddered inside her, a love that startled her and set off another round of tears.
The girls sitting behind her were talking to one another. Sixteen hours into the flight and she still couldn't identify the language, definitely not Xhosa, she hadn't heard any of the characteristic clicks, and not Sotho because she would surely have recognized the rhythms if not any of the words. At least they weren't singing.
It was September, the plane only half full. Unlike the other passengers who had shifted around after takeoff to secure banks of seats for themselves, the three girls had stayed together. They wore dark blue pinafores and light blue shirts. They looked too old to be schoolgirls, but then Eva thought of overcrowded classrooms in the townships, where twenty-year-old pupils shared textbooks and wrote their matric exams sitting on cement floors.
They sang for the first time just before the dinner service and their voices, full of sunshine and honey and dust, had disturbed in Eva some sodden longing for what used to be home. She wiped her eyes with a blue South African Airways blanket. She was crying for her father, because of her father. She shook her head in mild disgust at herself. Her mother was dead, worthy of her grief, and yet here she was weeping for that miserable ghost clinging to life in a hospital in Louis Trichardt.
She drank two small bottles of red wine with dinner and swallowed half a sleeping pill. The soft voices behind her were murmuring something as she drifted off. In her sozzled state she imagined it to be a lullaby, the private twittering of doves in a thicket.
Now, with an hour left in what had seemed like a never-ending flight, Eva stared at the cratered red earth giving way to a smooth dun-colored expanse mottled with dark green. Sand rivers that flow for just a few weeks each year if the rains are decent wound across the land like snail trails. Someone kneed her through the seat. The girls were giggling, piling on top of one another to look out of their small window, and she impulsively leaned over her seat back, saying, "Isn't it beautiful?"
They nodded, two of them immediately raising hands to demurely cover their mouths, while the third, a young woman really, looked curiously at Eva. She wanted to ask them what they'd been doing in America. Were they members of a youth group or a choir? Had a church sponsored their trip? The forthright gaze of the young woman deterred Eva from asking as she realized that she, in turn, would be questioned. She already had her lines prepared, she would claim to be an American tourist. She would lie to the girls, as she had for most of her years in New York, changing her story each time; one moment an immigrant from New Zealand, another a student visiting from England.
She slid back into her seat. It had been ten years since she'd left the country, and left her father standing in front of the Dutch Reformed church in Alldays. Now he was dying.
The shadow of the plane slid across the turquoise pools of Johannesburg's northern suburbs, buckled over ocher-colored slag heaps piled beside exhausted gold mines. The wheels thudded onto the runway, and the girls launched into "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika." Other passengers seated in her section joined in, the white South Africans humming because the Xhosa words of their new anthem still eluded them, the blacks giving full voice. A smiling American family seated at the bulkhead stood up to watch, the father filming it all with a video camera. They were going on safari; Eva had overheard them talking to the steward.
What did they think? That it was an African custom to launch into song whenever a plane touched down? A way of thanking the great spirit in the sky for bringing them safely back to earth? She looked out at the long, dry, once green grass and the exhausted blue of the midafternoon highveld sky. She doubted it would be an easy visit; hopefully it would be a short one.
Eva had left in 1987, a month after her mother's funeral. Lorraine had been cremated, which was an unusual occurrence in the Limpopo Valley. Farmers and their wives and their dogs were buried, resting in the earth being reward enough for years of toil. Lorraine's final act of rebellion had been to deprive the community of the grim satisfaction of watching Martin shovel earth onto his wife's coffin. Instead, Eva and her father stood in the shade of the marula tree beside the church while the mourners nervously paid their respects. God forbid Martin should open his mouth and subject them to the jaw and tremble and buck of his stutter. They needn't have worried; Eva held the fort beautifully. She clasped their hands in hers. Some expressed condolences in English, others Afrikaans, and she addressed each person in his or her language of choice. Within an hour it was over, no one left apart from two little African boys staring at them from beneath a thorn tree across the street and the dominee approaching to talk about how God's hand is present in even the most hideous of accidents. Eva wanted to scream.
"I'm going to drive back to Jo'burg," she said to her father without looking at him. She would not give him that, not even a glance at his hands to see if they were shaking, fingers of one hand worrying in the palm of the other.
She wept in the car. The goshawks perched on the telephone poles, the koppies rising out of the rock-strewn veld, the world that she loved seemed incapable of offering any solace, and Eva was grateful when darkness arrived and all she could see was the broken white line in the road, the signs announcing the kilometers to Johannesburg.
Weeks passed. Her uncle Hendrik, who worked as a stuntman in the South African film industry and who had secured her a job as a production assistant on a soap opera, paid her a visit. She'd been fired, her hair was unwashed, her flat filthy. Alarmed, he urged her to do something good for herself. Take a trip, he said and he gave her enough money for a ticket overseas. Eva chose a night flight to Amsterdam. The lights of Soweto and Johannesburg scattered beneath her like diamonds and rubies and tigers'-eyes when the plane took off. Darkness and stars for eight hours, then the impossible green and density of Europe, the somber civilized ocean beneath them as they flew into Schiphol Airport. She checked into a hostel, crawling out once a day for an apple pancake and a beer, unable to contemplate a future. Then one morning, a week after her arrival, she realized one certainty: that she would not return home before his death. She went out and bought a train ticket to Spain.
He will want to be buried, Eva thought as she waited with the other passengers in the line leading to passport control. And she knew where. The small cemetery outside Messina, where the plastic flowers beside the graves melted during the summer months. Damn him for dying. She handed over her South African passport, and an African man with an explosive smile stamped it and said, "Welcome home."
With the end of apartheid, Jan Smuts International Airport had become Johannesburg Airport. The Witwatersrand, the area encompassing Johannesburg, Randfontein, and a few other towns, and named after a cascade of white water that the early settlers had seen, was now part of Gauteng -- Eva had no idea what Gauteng meant -- and the conservative Transvaal, province of stoic farmers, sofa-size rugby players, and insatiable hunters, had been divided into the Northern Province and Mpumalanga. A new country, and she sensed it the minute she passed through customs.
Gone were the young, nervy-eyed white soldiers with their machine guns; instead the terminal seemed overrun with black taxi drivers asking her if she needed a ride. No, no thank you, she said, her eyes sweeping across their faces. In the past she'd have handled them with a certain confidence, an ongoing rapid discernment -- trust this one, have nothing to do with that character -- her white skin at least giving her the illusion of security. Now she felt uncertain of herself.
She stepped outside into the shock of the sunlight. Buses with spewing exhaust pipes and ads for Sun City painted on their sides trundling past, row upon row of cars in the vast parking lot -- it would have been so cosmopolitan if it hadn't been for that light, wild and fierce, as if gleaned from the eyes of animals that kill. She took a minibus shuttle to the Holiday Inn, listening to the earthy lilt of the driver's voice, the white family sitting opposite her with their flattened accents that turned each word into a roughly carved piece of wood.
After a plate of prawns peri-peri and a long shower, Eva made her way to the bar. Two large fiberglass tusks flanked the entrance; inside, a group of Indian businessmen crowded the red Naugahyde banquets. She perched on a stool at the bar and ordered a glass of pinotage. In the mirror opposite her, she studied the reflections of the two blond South African women seated to her right. Long manicured nails, chunky gold jewelry, and cell phones resting on the bar. She glanced at her own reflection. She'd worn lip gloss and it hadn't helped; her mouth appeared to be more downturned than usual, her eyes vacant. She was twenty-eight years old, but with her short haircut -- it had been so chic in New York -- and the emotional tumult of returning etched across her face, she looked odd, like a middle-aged teenager. She reached quickly for her glass of wine.
The blondes departed, and Eva ordered another glass from the bartender, who wore a Nehru jacket cut from kente cloth.
"An American who knows that pinotage is South Africa's finest wine." He set the glass in front of her. "So, what part of the States are you from?"
"I live in New York."
"Ah, the Big Apple."
She laughed. He made it sound like a piece of fruit. The bartender wrinkled his brow as if he didn't understand her amusement, and emboldened by the velvety pinotage, she said, "Yup. Maar ek's gebore in Humansdorp en het op 'n plaas -- " The words tumbling out of her mouth like clods of earth flustered her; she hadn't spoken Afrikaans out loud in ten years, and she knocked her wineglass over.
"No problem." He wiped the bar clean. "Welcome home, Mrs....or could it be Miss?"
"Miss, Eva -- " Her eyes fluttered away from his in embarrassment. She must have sounded like a holdover from the old South Africa; Miss Eva was the way the Africans who worked on Skinner's Drift had addressed her. "I mean, it's just plain Eva."
"Welcome home, not so plain Eva."
Again she avoided his eyes. Surely he wasn't flirting with her. "Van Rensburg," she added.
"Oh, that's a nice boere surname." He refilled her glass and slid it toward her. "A few years ago I would have been scared of someone with a name like that."
"Cheers!" She raised the glass to her lips, unsure of how she should respond.
A smile curled ever so slowly across his face until his cheekbones jutted out like rock ledges.
"Eva, is everything okay?" He leaned toward her, close enough for her to read the name tag pinned to his jacket.
"No, no, you make it sound too American. Listen. Rah..." His mouth opened wide as a lion's. "Puu..." His lips pursed as if he were kissing her. "Lana!" He swallowed and sighed.
Eva turned scarlet. She ran her fingers nervously up the stem of her wineglass -- and abruptly stopped, realizing that the gesture might seem provocative. "Rapulana -- " God, even saying his name felt like a sexual act. "Thank you. You've -- well, you've given me quite a welcome!"
She finished her wine and scooted off the barstool.
"I like you, Eva, but you need to pay your bill."
"Oh, my God, I'm so sorry!"
She fumbled with her wallet and pulled out a one-hundred-rand note. When he walked to the register at the other end of the bar she fled, leaving him a generous tip.
Back in her room she was pacing. Would she have been so flustered if a black American had come on to her? Of course not. It was being back in the country where, just a decade ago, a black man would never have flirted with her that had shaken her confidence. She opened the blinds and stared at three planes parked on a distant runway. Swissair with its comforting red cross and two others, obviously from an African country, cheetahs in full stride painted on the fuselages below rows of tiny windows. She had a Visa card, escape was still a possibility. But it wouldn't be once she called Johanna. Her stomach turned over.
The cheetah planes glided toward the terminal. Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, the names of African countries -- countries that Eva could not place on a map -- came to mind. She looked at her watch -- it was nine-thirty -- and picked up the phone. God knows what Johanna thought of her, wicked Eva abandoning her father when he needed her so. She dialed the number.
"You've come home. Liewe Here -- " Johanna sobbed.
"Yes, I'm in Johannesburg."
Johanna blew her nose and wheezed. "Eva?"
"Yes, I'm here." A deep sucking sound followed, and Eva knew her aunt had reached for her inhaler.
"But you are sounding like an American," Johanna said, and then, as if it were quite possible that an American was playing a horrible trick on her, she demanded, "Eva? Are you sure that's you?"
Eva grinned. She piled two pillows together and lay on the bed, relaxing into the asthmatic gullibility of her aunt. "Johanna, I swear, it's me."
They chatted about the flight, Johanna wanting to know about the food onboard and whether the plane had managed to fly the whole way without stopping for petrol.
"Yes, we didn't run out of fuel. So, how is he doing?"
Another trumpeting nose blow. "Oh, skat, I think he had another stroke while he was incinerated in the hospital -- "
"Incarcerated, but that's not -- "
"What's that, Eva?"
"Nothing...never mind. Go on."
"Well, it's terrible. He doesn't recognize anyone. He just lies there and cries."
Eva's smile faded. The thought of her father in tears rankled her, and she sat up and told her aunt she'd be in Louis Trichardt late the following afternoon. Johanna gave her a brief lecture on how she must not give any blacks a lift, "even the old women who carry all their belongings in a bundle on their heads. A person just can't tell these days."
She hung up the phone, the image of her weeping father still vexing her, and switched on the TV in time to watch the news. Fist-clenching black workers picketing the Pepsi bottling plant, a white game warden detailing the efforts to track a rogue lion that had killed several head of cattle belonging to a tribe contesting the borders of Kruger National Park. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had wrapped up its hearings in Pietermaritzburg with testimony from a distraught African woman who spoke of gathering pieces of her husband after police firebombed their house. In two weeks the commission would reconvene in the Northern Province.
She switched to M-Net, the twenty-four-hour movie channel, and swallowed the other half of her sleeping pill. Her thoughts drifted uneasily to Stefan.
She'd been tempted to call him from JFK to tell him she was flying to South Africa. A need for earnest, decent Stefan to say, "That's great, Eva. You're going home." But she still felt ashamed of the way she'd behaved with him.
She'd met him in the summer of 1991 on the set of a TV commercial where she was working as a gofer. De Klerk had released Mandela from Pollsmoor Prison the year before, and to say you were a South African was to be an ambassador of hope. No longer a pariah, you were now a desired guest at parties, where you were supposed to speak eloquently about the struggle, to tear up and talk about the walk from the darkness into the light. But Eva didn't reveal her nationality to Stefan right away; she mumbled her usual nonsense about New Zealand and had to field several questions concerning fjords and sheep.
They began seeing each other, Stefan patiently pursuing, Eva feeling squirrelly about it all. He worked as a part-time set painter and photographed New York with a pinhole camera. He also took photographs of Eva. The transformation of her face into an eerie poltergeist-like blur appealed to her, and soon she had more than a dozen of them taped to her refrigerator.
"I should have one for my passport photo," she joked one August afternoon after they'd idly been discussing traveling somewhere together. They'd just made love, and she stood naked in front of the refrigerator, trying to pry a tray of ice cubes from the depths of her frost-blocked freezer.
"So let's see your passport," Stefan replied.
She turned, the cool air a blessing on her back, and studied him. He hadn't put his glasses on, so she knew he couldn't see her. He was unassuming and so terribly kind and polite, like Neels, and she was tired of lying and feeling so lonely. Abandoning her quest for ice, she dug her passport out of a drawer and handed it to him with his glass of cool water from the tap.
"South Africa? But you come from New Zealand."
"Why? What's happening in your country is astonishing. When I saw Mandela walk out of that prison -- "
Eva was stunned; sensitive Stefan had tears in his eyes. The tears she was supposed to have. She pulled on her panties. "You don't know what it was like in the late eighties. When I first arrived in the city, a Jamaican threw me out of his cab after I told him I was a South African."
Stefan patted the bed. "But you don't have to lie about it anymore."
Reluctantly, she sat beside him.
"Tell me something, Eva van Rensburg. Anything."
It was the hour when sunlight graced her studio apartment. Sparrows were hopping through the ginkgo tree outside her window and her neighbor had the baseball game on his TV.
"I grew up on a farm," she said.
Within the week, Stefan bought a copy of Cry, the Beloved Country and carried it in his backpack. Alarmed by his growing passion for all things South African, Eva told him that she was not interested in politics, or discussing her childhood. But often, after making love, she'd stare out her window at the yellowing leaves of the ginkgo tree, the sleet, and tell him about life on Skinner's Drift. The day she was riding her horse and came across a huge knot of python uncurling in the morning sun, the Limpopo running muddy and strong after summer storms.
It was Stefan who told Eva that expatriate South Africans, even those holding foreign passports, "Even Kiwis like you," could go to the UN and vote in the country's first democratic election. He urged her to go and she did. And she lied, telling him how wonderful it was to cast her vote when in truth she'd felt too ashamed, too filthy to join the line, and she'd fled to a bar and ended up in a stranger's bed. Soon after that, in a wash of self-loathing, Eva broke up with him.
A year later they were seeing each other again and South Africa had set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Stefan followed it avidly in the papers, reading about Vlakplaas, the farm outside Johannesburg where hit squads were trained, where die manne, members of the Security Police, could relax, have a drinking session, a braaivleis. He was on fire with the country's suffering, and the more he talked about justice and healing and compassion, the more alienated Eva felt.
"What do you think?" he asked her one evening as she poured a jar of pasta sauce into a pot. "Do you think people like Dirk Coetzee should get amnesty?"
Eva shrugged and began chopping black olives for the sauce.
Stefan paced the length of her apartment. "He tortured people. You know, they did that on Vlakplaas. And yet -- " He stopped, ran his hands through his sandy-colored hair. "I find this so remarkable. I think that South Africa could forgive him. The heart of your country -- "
"Please, can we have one night when we don't have to talk about all of this? I told you, I'm just not interested in politics, so why you keep on -- "
He looked at her in confusion. "I don't get it. How can you know about all of this and not care?" His voice began to tremble. "They burned a body on that farm, Eva. They sat around and drank beers and watched -- "
"Don't you dare cry!" Eva flung the chopping board to the floor. "Don't you dare snivel in my apartment over my country, my history, my life!" She was on the verge of tears, but when she spoke again her voice was calculating. "You're so in love with that fucking country. Well, guess what? I'm not. I'm never going back. And you want to know something else? I lied to you. I didn't even care enough to vote."
Stefan took off his glasses and rubbed them on his turtleneck.
They ate their pasta in silence. If he'd been a dog, his ears would have folded back in appeasement. In bed that night, the fingertips tracing the length of her spine told her that he still cared about her, despite her outburst. It didn't matter, she could not forgive herself, and when she didn't roll over and move into his arms, he stopped and left her alone. A few days later she once again ended the relationship.
Thanks to the sleeping pill, Eva didn't wake until ten. She devoured a plate of fresh pawpaw, then took the shuttle bus back to the airport, where she rented a car for the five-hour drive to Louis Trichardt.
She headed north on the N1. Beyond the outlying suburbs of Pretoria, flat-topped thorn trees dotted the veld on either side of the road. Donkeys grazed near clusters of shacks built out of rusted car doors, sheets of corrugated iron, sacking, and anything else their broken inhabitants could find. Occasionally she passed a farmhouse surrounded by a tall security fence. A dry, thirsty light washed over everything.
She knew the road well. There stood the one-pump petrol station, now abandoned, that her father had patronized. The owner had been a lean, thin-lipped Afrikaner who sat in a deck chair, cold Castle in one hand, pack of Luckys in the other, and watched his black employee pump the petrol. There the bend in the road where her father once ran over a rinkhals, reversed over it to make sure it was dead, and then, despite Lorraine's protestations, invited Eva to look at the long gray-brown snake, its tail still violently whipping about.
Two hours into the drive she passed Boshoff's Nursery, where her mother bought her rosebushes. Eva braked sharply. She made a U-turn, pulled into the gravel driveway, and scanned the aisles. There were no roses in bloom. A young black man watering the potted palms waved, and she waved back, but her heart was racing as if she'd been caught doing something illicit, and she put her foot on the accelerator, gravel clattering against the car as she sped away.
The Soutpansberg, the mountains looming behind Louis Trichardt, were veiled in cloud when she drove into town at dusk. Barefoot young white boys with bristly haircuts zigzagged their bicycles down the tree-lined residential streets, while the town's maids and gardeners trudged in the direction of the African township.
Eva carried her suitcase through her aunt's garden gate. A curtain in the small window next to the door parted and then closed, and she heard several locks and bolts sliding open. The door swung wide, and there stood Johanna, bosom heaving, arms reaching for Eva.
She'd matured into a tannie, the quintessential Afrikaner auntie: gray hair tucked into a cobwebby hairnet; a green apron, bordered with tiny zebras, over her respectable navy dress. She embraced Eva warmly, then stepped back, clutched her hands as if in prayer, and urged, "Naartjie, Eva. Boerewors -- biltong -- vetkoek!"
"We must turn you back into a South African, Miss John Wayne. Say it after me. Naartjie -- "
"Tangerine, spicy sausage, beef jerky, and a terribly fattening piece of fried dough," Eva translated with a smile, and she lugged her suitcase into the lounge.
"Beef what? En jy moet eet kind. Jy's te maer."
"Thin is fashionable in New York." She shook her head; not even two seconds in the house and Johanna was feeling out where her loyalties lay, nudging her to the Afrikaner side of the family.
"New York!" Johanna harrumphed.
Two dainty glasses sat on a marble-topped washstand. She opened the small cupboard at its base -- designed to hold a chamber pot -- and, with a flourish, produced a bottle of Old Brown Sherry. She poured each of them a glass. "To Eva, who I never thought I'd see again. And now she's here!" She sobbed and downed her sherry and told Eva to relax, soon she'd have dinner on the table.
Eva poured herself another drink and looked around the room. Nothing had changed. There were the two springbok-skin rugs that her father had given Johanna, the heavy glass-fronted cabinets out of which books would surely skitter but in which a gun would comfortably rest, the two riempie benches with their sagging ox-sinew seats. She remembered her mother's name for Johanna's house: Voortrekker Suites.
"Kos is op die tafel!" Johanna rang a small bell and summoned her niece to the dining alcove.
They took their usual seats at the dining table, set with heavy-handled silverware and crocheted lace doilies. As Johanna cut into the venison pie and served the pumpkin fritters dusted with cinnamon sugar, Eva was assailed with memories of the obligatory once-a-month Sunday lunches.
Her father would sit at the head of the table looking oppressed in the jacket and long trousers he'd worn out of respect for his sister. Her mother would be at the other end, unruly blond hair pulled into a small, tight bun that made her face even more moonlike, the surprise of coral lipstick on her generous mouth, her pale eyebrows etched with brown eyebrow pencil. And then there was the table, laden with a huge roast leg of lamb, sodden vegetables, and a braised ox tongue that Eva refused to taste and that seemed to mock the family with its insolent curving tip. "Neem vir jou nog 'n snytjie tong, boetie?" Johanna would ask, her plump hand resting on Martin's arm. "You should learn how to cook tongue, Lorraine, it's his favorite food." When she resumed her one-sided conversation with Martin, Lorraine would tap toes under the table with Eva and murmur, "Are you sure you wouldn't like to try the tongue, Evie?" Unable to contain her laughter any longer, Eva would flee the table for the toilet, where she would try to compose herself. On her return, she'd find her mother, eyes rolling like those of an excitable horse, pestering Johanna, waving her serviette at her sister-in-law and demanding that she speak more slowly so she could understand her Afrikaans. It was only during the car ride back to the farm that Eva resumed the vigil she kept over her father's moods, anxiously watching the set of his jaw while her mother dissected the hours they'd spent at Voortrekker Suites, ready to change the subject if she sensed that her mother was going too far.
"Skattebol, another slice of pie?" Johanna asked.
Eva started. "No, I'm fine right now."
"A little more sherry?"
In the unflattering light of the dining alcove, her aunt's face looked wrung out and deeply lined. She'd never married, and Eva had a vision of a teenage Johanna, stocky-legged and frowning, in a school playground, one arm wrapped tight around her stuttering little brother, a fist raised at his tormentors.
Eva relented; after all, the fritters were delicious. "Tannie, die pampoen is baie lekker."
Johanna's lips quivered. She removed the hankie that she kept tucked between her breasts and dabbed her eyes and thanked God that her niece was home. She prayed for Martin's recovery and stared at the ceiling as if to check that her words had taken flight.
Eva promptly drained her sherry glass.
Johanna did the same, eyes flitting to the ceiling once more as she cried, "And please forgive me for not making him leave the farm!"
"I'm sure you did everything you could," Eva soothed.
"No, I went to the farm a few weeks ago. I hadn't seen him in months, and I cooked him a tongue, three chickens, and a melktert. Like an expedition, I'm telling you. All that dust and that twisting road down through the koppies. It was terrible! I got there in the middle of the day and found him sleeping on the sofa with all the curtains closed. I made us some tea, and when he stepped outside I saw that he hadn't shaved in days and -- forgive me for saying this" -- Johanna clutched Eva's hand -- "he smelled, bad, like he wasn't washing himself. I wanted to cry when I looked at his feet, all swollen and red."
Through a thickening fog of Old Brown Sherry and jet lag, Eva stared at the veins on her aunt's hand, winding like rivers on a map, dividing into tributaries. She knew she should have some sort of emotional response; her aunt was telling sad stories about her father's decline -- when Johanna had called her in New York and said, he's dying, her heart had almost stopped -- but all Eva felt was immense fatigue, her head about to fall into the plate that held the last pumpkin fritter. She blinked at it, too good to waste. She picked it up and tried to concentrate on Johanna's words.
"I should have made him come home with me. But by the end of the visit he'd cheered up. You know why? That bloody dog stole the tongue. Ach, I was angry. But my boetie was laughing, and if that's what it took, I would serve tongue to that animal once a week. I thought he was going to be all right. Two weeks later I got a call from the hospital."
Johanna tilted the sherry bottle, less than an inch left. Eva declined and Johanna finished it.
"He gave me something to give to you. I was in the car, and he came out of the house with a box and said, 'When my time comes, give these to Eva.' I told him to stop talking such rubbish, but he insisted."
Eva struggled to keep her eyes open. "He gave you something?" she mumbled.
"Those diaries, the ones your mother kept. I put them in your room. Kind? Is jy wakker? Come, come, you must go to bed." Johanna ushered Eva down the hallway to the spare room. She peeled back the sheets on a sturdy single bed with a dark wooden headboard. Eva kicked off her shoes, pulled off her jeans, and flopped onto the bed.
"Do you want your pajamas?" Johanna asked when she returned with Eva's suitcase.
"Don't own any," she murmured.
"Brush your -- "
Eva shook her head.
Johanna stood beside the bed, chuckling. "Look at you! Miss America with no pajamas in my spare bed. Sleep well, skattie."
At three in the morning Eva's eyes snapped open. She fumbled for the switch on the bedside light, uncertain of where she was. Two paintings hung on the wall opposite her, one of pale-skinned young women with pastel head scarves sitting in the shade of an oasis. In the other, haggard men with white beards were leading a string of camels down a sand dune. Ah, yes, Johanna's house. She remembered her aunt talking about the diaries, so she wriggled out of the tightly tucked-in blankets to search for them.
In the corner of the room she spied a thick crocheted blanket folded on top of a cardboard box marked castle lager. She tossed the blanket onto the bed, lifted the flaps, and saw the familiar pebbly grain on the black leather covers of her mother's diaries. A small envelope rested on top of them. She withdrew a single sheet of paper and recognized the spidery, childlike handwriting.
For Eva. From your father.
Goose bumps rippled across her forearms. She'd had no contact with him for a decade; because of his stutter Martin had never befriended words, spoken or written, and it was through letters from Hendrik and Johanna, letters she reluctantly opened, that Eva learned about her father's decline.
She read the two short sentences again, then closed her eyes as she guessed at what remained unwritten.
Angrily, she crumpled the sheet of paper and tossed it to one side. She knelt beside the box and carefully removed the diaries, arranging them on the floor in three rows in chronological order. The first was a composition book, the kind Eva had used at school, and on the cover Lorraine had written 1974. The last diary -- she noted this with a twist in her stomach -- was for 1984.
She scooted a few feet away from them as if to get an overview. They're nothing more than daily entries about life on the farm, she told herself. Still, the notion of what her mother might have discovered unsettled her.
Eva stood up abruptly and moved back to the bed. She would not read them. There was no need to. She knew all there was to know about the farm. And her father knew, and why the hell had he asked Johanna to pass these on? She didn't have one jot of sympathy for the ruin of a man that her aunt had described, almost destitute in his own house.
Yet when she was a child she'd always been curious about those diaries, wondering how her mother saw her and her father and their life on the farm. A quick look, that was all she'd need now. She scooped up the composition book and turned to the first entry of 1974.
We have a home! Not a farm that we are managing but our very own. Skinner's Drift! It is roughly three thousand hectare with the most extraordinary red sandstone rock formations marking the eastern border. The interior is harsh with a few baobabs and lots of stunted mopane trees, but we are living close to the Limpopo in a run-down double-story farmhouse with a red tile roof and iron grillwork on the windows. We walked the river this afternoon. It's dry, but that happens for a few months each year. And the floodplain is rich and perfect for crops. Martin carried Eva on his shoulders and I've never seen him so happy. Eva kept asking questions and insisted on answering them herself. Later we found a puff adder coiled behind the toilet. Martin shot it and in the process cracked the cistern. So much to do and I should go to sleep but I'm so excited! As I write this, Eva is sleeping on a camp bed in our room and Tosha is at my feet, wondering what to make of the sound of a hyena calling. As am I!!!
Eva could see the river winding through the trees beyond the farmhouse like a deserted highway. The sand was the color of milk and honey in the lazy light of late afternoon, the silence broken by the mewling cries of the gray louries.
A day of unpacking and trying to understand this house, this new life. The world here is so different from the Eastern Cape. No ocean, no smell of the sea, instead we smell potatoes! There's a plant that grows on the banks of the river and it smells exactly like chopped raw potatoes. Dolf Claasen our neighbor visited today with tales of leopards and elephants. The era of big game roaming in this area is coming to an end, but there is still plenty of wildlife on the Botswana side of the Limpopo. It's just dawning on me what it means to be living on the border. Right now I could take my cup of tea, walk across the dry riverbed (nervously, because Dolf has spooked me with his elephant stories), and be in another country. And I love the fact that I am finally living in a double-story house. Call me hoity-toity if you like, but we're coming up in the world. No more one-bedroom farm managers' homes for us, buckets in the kitchen to catch the leaks and an outside toilet. Eva will have her own room and we'll have an office downstairs. In a few days I'm driving into Louis Trichardt and Johanna will show me the shops.
An African man showed up at the door this morning, hat in hand, saying that he would work hard, asking us to please give him a chance. His name is Ezekiel and he worked for the previous owners and my sense is that he's a good, trustworthy man. Martin has him tearing down old chicken coops, clearing away a lot of rusted junk. He lives in a shack near the river. I gave him a few slices of bread for lunch and asked him if he isn't scared when the elephants come through. He laughed and said that when he hears them he lies very still on his bed.
Eva closed the composition book and placed it back on the floor. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to tear away from the image of Ezekiel standing at the kitchen door, crumpling his hat in his hands, hoping the baas will give him a job and he won't have to move on. It would have been better if he had. She hadn't seen him since the day her mother was killed. She'd left, traveled far away from Skinner's Drift, and he'd continued to work for Martin.
Her chest felt tight, the room airless, so she opened the window and slipped her hand through the burglar bars. She rubbed her fingers together as if feeling the texture of the night. The Soutpansberg was two, maybe three miles away. It was still wild country, and her thoughts skittered around the leopard that would be prowling the ravines at this hour, the anxious baboons huddling together on rock ledges. No jackals, though. Phukubje, that was the Sotho word for jackal, Ezekiel had told her. They mated for life and they preferred flatter, more open terrain.
Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Fugard
Meet the Author
Lisa Fugard was born in South Africa, the daughter of acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard. She came to the United States in 1980 to pursue her acting career. She has written many articles for The New York Times travel section and this is her first novel. She lives in the desert of Southern California.
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I read EVERYTHING and rarely do I love a book enough to keep it. This one is a keeper. The story is mesmorizing, the author is truly gifted in storytelling and also in her writing style. I felt as though I was right there in the story. I can't wait to see more ! This book has it all and I am a very picky reader!
The characters are individual and compelling. The history is educational and insightful. The story a bit suspenseful and always entertaining. I highly recommend this book! Oprah needs to add this one to her list.
This book is filled with errors. Even if that was not a problem the story is confusing and the characters underdeveloped. I do not recommend this book.