Authors: Trilby Kent
Text copyright © 2011 by Trilby Kent
Published in Canada by Tundra Books, 75 Sherbourne Street, Toronto, Ontario M5A 2P9
Published in the United States by Tundra Books of Northern New York, P.O. Box 1030, Plattsburgh, New York 12901
Library of Congress Control Number: 2010928790
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher — or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency — is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Medina Hill / Trilby Kent.
PS8571.E643S76 2011 jC813′.54 C2010-903163-6
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP) and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
In memory of those who came before me —
the sons and daughters of the prairie and veld
ALSO BY TRILBY KENT
y mother once told me of a dream she had as a young girl, in the days before the English came. She had dreamed of a child, a boy, with ruddy cheeks and blue eyes like my father’s, and a gurgling laugh that could make even Oom Jakob smile.
I was not that child. My mother would have to wait four long years before another baby came along, not counting the one that was stillborn shortly after my third birthday. Eleven months later, Gert arrived: a squalling, sticky, red-faced putto whose body was all out of proportion and who smelled like parsnips and brine. When my mother laid eyes on him for the first time, the look on her face told me that this,
was the child of her dream.
“You see, Corlie — eyes just like his father’s,” she said, while Tant Minna fussed about the bed with clean towels and a basin of hot water. “And so much hair,
There were many things that set Gert and me apart, but — as far as I could tell — those were the important ones. Gertie’s hair grew into golden curls, while mine remained coarse and tawny. Gertie’s eyes were the color of veld violets, while mine were like pools of muddy water. When Hansie was born a few years later, he was the same: blond and bouncing, with cornflower eyes and my Oupa Wessel’s jug ears. No one ever thought to comment on my looks. My arms were too skinny and my front teeth overlapped slightly. The skin on my nose turned pink and peeled after just a few minutes in the African sun.
,” Pa used to say when, as a young girl, I would clamber into his lap and lock my arms around his shoulders.
was the word we used for the English — “rednecks,” because they burned so easily in the sun — but my father’s name for me was always used with a smile and a wink.
My mother never called me anything but Corlie. If she used my full name, Coraline Roux, I knew that it was time to make myself scarce by hiding in the cattle sheds.
She’d used my full name the morning I dropped a jar of peaches in the kitchen. The impact sent juice splashing across the slate tiles and a million shards of glass cartwheeling about the floor. When my mother bent to salvage some of the preserved fruit, she must have cut a finger with a piece of glass because immediately she shot upright with a gasped “
” and cuffed me sharply about the ear.
“Get out of here,” she snapped. “Take your brother to Oom Flip’s. He owes us a box of tobacco.” Despite her godly airs, my mother was a prodigious smoker. Pa had never approved of her pipe habit, but Pa wasn’t around anymore to tell her so. My mother’s face had turned quite red, the veins in her temples bulging where her hair had been scraped back into a severe bun. “Are you deaf, girl? Do you want me to get the
The whip was made of rhino hide and had only ever been used by my father for cattle driving. I didn’t wait for a second threat but scarpered right then and there, grabbing Gert’s hand as I passed him on the stoop and hauling him behind me until we were safely out of view from the house.
Oom Flip wasn’t really our uncle. He owned the trading shop halfway between our farm and Amersfoort, about an hour’s walk under a high sun. Oom Flip se Winkel sold everything that we couldn’t grow or raise or make ourselves, such as tobacco. The shop smelled of leather and dried fish, and the sour beer that local men brewed from sorghum. Sometimes, when his wife wasn’t around, Oom Flip would pass us a couple of syrupy twisted doughnuts as a treat.
Beyond the dirt track that led to Amersfoort, a gray-green plateau scattered with aloes stretched all the way to the Drakensberg Mountains. The jacaranda tree next to our clay-brick house was the tallest thing for miles. From where we paused atop a
, the white farm buildings behind us seemed to huddle close to the dry
land as if to escape the sun’s searching glare. On one side of the hill were fields of hardy, fragrant lavender plants buzzing with bees drunk on wild nectar; on the other, clusters of crackled spurge shrubs and an expanse of yellow grassland. In the distance, a shepherd herded a few goats across the rugged terrain. The smell of hot, sweet grass filled the air.
“What if there are khakis?” asked Gert as he stumbled along beside me. “What if they see us?”
“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “There aren’t any English here — they learned their lesson at Bergendal. The Transvaal is free Boer country now.”
My little brother scowled down at his feet. There’d not been time to collect our shoes from the house, and his toenails were black with grit. When the heat grew so fierce that even the crickets seemed to droop during their music-making, I would often discard my pinafore and stockings and make do in the grubby shift that had grown stiff with Ma’s zealous scrubbing. For the boys, it was easier: Gert seemed to live in the same pair of breeches, with just a single suspender to preserve his modesty. Even Ma agreed that in these hard times it was only sensible to keep our better clothes intact for winter.
After we had been walking for several minutes, my brother pointed at a herd of springbok edging along the horizon.
“We should be hunting,” he murmured. “If Pa were here, we’d be eating eland and blesbok every night.”
“Shut up,” I said. Gert knew full well that there was no point in talking as if Pa was coming back. There was no coming back from where Pa had gone.
“We’ll ask Tant Sanna for some mealie bread at the shop.”
We kept walking.
“Tell me a story, Corlie.”
It was a request that he knew I wouldn’t be able to resist. Ma always said that my stories would only get me into trouble, that a good Boer girl should spend more time learning how to skin game and mend her brothers’ pants — and less time spinning lies for their amusement. “Twelve years old and still wasting your breath on fairy tales,” she would say. “It’s high time you turned your mind to the Bible, my girl. There are plenty of stories in the Good Book — and all of them true, not just the silly ideas of an idle
But the Bible didn’t have stories about the
that lived under my bed, a mischievous spirit that could make itself invisible by swallowing a stone. The Bible didn’t have stories about men who survived in the desert by gutting an oryx and drinking the contents of its stomach. The Bible didn’t even have the best story of all — which Pa had told me himself as soon as I was old enough to understand — about how the Boers trekked for many years through wild and dangerous bush before settling in the Transvaal. “Africa defeats some people and redeems others,” Pa
used to tell me. “The
can’t be defeated by Africa, because it is ours. God gave it to us.”
But Gert had heard these stories before, so I decided to tell him a new one. It was a tale that I had been working on for several days, about a queen who wore a luminous boa constrictor as a cowl and a little green gecko as a brooch. Ostrich feathers decorated her hair, a necklace of cowrie shells circled her neck, and her dress was made of red-bush leaves and zebra skins. I called her Ntombazi, after the Zulu queen.
I was halfway into the story when my brother let out a howl of pain, crumpling to the ground and grabbing his left foot with both hands.
“What is it, Gertie?” I dropped to my knees and pried open my brother’s clasped fingers, already imagining the worst: a scorpion bite, perhaps, or a snake …
“An arrowhead!” My brother’s round face lit up; he hadn’t even noticed the crimson blood rising in a bubble from his big toe. He turned the flint point this way and that, studying its carved edges against the sky. “Bushman. I wonder how old it is …”
I ripped an aloe leaf from a nearby plant and pressed it against the wound. “Is that better? Can you walk? Shall I help you?”
Gert shot me a scornful look. “
” he said, pushing me away with his other heel. My brother was only eight, and already he was learning to talk like a big man. “I’m not a baby, Corlie.” He stood up, all the while examining his precious trophy. “I’ll bore a hole through
it and wear it around my neck,” he said, more to himself than to me.
At Oom Flip’s, the shopkeeper’s wife gave us some fudge to suck on while she cleaned Gert’s wound with rubbing alcohol. Tant Sanna was a buxom old auntie with the haunches of a warhorse and whiskers as thick as sewing needles sprouting from her chin. My brother squirmed a bit, but he was too proud to cry the way he might have if it had been Ma tending to him. When Oom Flip came in, bearing two magnificent pumpkins from their garden, he grinned at the sight of us.
“Been in the wars, eh, Gert?” he asked, his voice rumbling like distant thunder as he set the pumpkins on the counter by the till. “Let’s see to that.”
Oom Flip may have drunk like a fish, but when he was sober there was no one more kind to us. Within moments, he had bandaged my brother’s toe with a strip of linen ripped from a dishcloth. He even remembered to slip me a handful of pear drops, my favorite treat in all the world.
“How’s your ma?” he asked. “Still no trouble from the khaki scum, I hope?”
“She’s been lucky.” He wrapped Ma’s tobacco in brown paper and handed the bundle to me. “Word has it the commando’s had a hell of a time keeping the Tommies to the ridge. The day the British Lion gets us in his sights —”
“Pa said lions are a damned nuisance,” I told him.
Oom Flip roared with laughter. “You take that tobacco back to your ma with Flip’s best regards,” he said. “Tell her to make it last — there won’t be any more until the khakis reopen the railway line from Jo’burg.”
When we arrived home later that afternoon, tobacco in hand, my mother greeted us with a shriek of panic.
“What happened?” she demanded, hastening to untie the makeshift bandage that Oom Flip had wrapped around my brother’s toe. At the sight of dried blood, she drew her breath sharply. “What did you do to him?”