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Authors: Karel Schoeman

This Life

BOOK: This Life
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Copyright © 2005 by Karel Schoeman
Copyright © English translation, Elsa Silke, 1993
Originally published in Afrikaans in 1993 (Human & Rousseau)
First published in English in 2005 by Human & Rousseau, an imprint of NB Publishers, Cape Town South Africa

First Archipelago Books Edition, 2015

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Archipelago Books
232 3rd Street #A111
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Schoeman, Karel, author.
[Hierdie lewe. English. 2015]
This life / Karel Shoeman; translated from the Afrikaans by Else Silke.
pages cm
English, translated from Afrikaans.
Summary: “THIS LIFE considers both the past and future of the Afrikaner people through four generations of one South African [family]. Told from the perspective of one woman in her final days, it is a lyrical account of a 200 year old culture and history that has been irrevocably lost.” – Publisher’s note.
“First published in English in 2005 by Human & Rousseau, an imprint of NB Publishers, Cape Town South Africa.”
978-0-914671-15-2 – e
1. Afrikaners – Fiction. 2. Rural families – South Africa – Northern Cape – Fiction. 3. Family farms – South Africa – Northern Cape – Fiction. 4. Northern Cape (South Africa) – Fiction. I. Silke, Elsa, translator. II. Title.
5413 2015
839.3635–dc23   2014035212

Archipelago gratefully acknowledges the generous support from Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.


and goes out; I lie awake in the dark, listening to the regular breathing of the girl asleep on the cot at the foot of my bed. It does not matter, nothing matters now, for to wait is all that remains, and light or darkness no longer matters. I know this room where I slept as a child, this old house on the ridge with Maans’s new house some distance below, the kraals, the dams, and the low hills of the flat, faded land. I do not even have to close my eyes: wide-eyed in the dark I see the house where I was born, the farm where I grew up and, if I were to get up, I would still be able to find my way blindly over the dung floor of the bedroom and Stienie’s new wooden floor in the voorhuis. I would feel my way to the bolt on the front door, without hesitation I would pull open the heavy old door, careful not to let the hinges creak, and step out into the yard. There is no moon, but I do not need moonlight to recognise the farm of my youth or to find the footpath. I feel no pain as I step barefoot over the stones, past the outbuildings and the kraal, and over the ridge to the graveyard, to stand there, my hand resting on the stacked stones of the wall. And then? What then? I am no longer certain what I have come to look for here. The silver glow of the night becomes shrouded, the greyish landscape grows dim before my eyes, and I no longer know where I am.

But no. No.

Where am I? I lie trapped in the dark, listening to someone breathing near me in the dark. Is it Dulsie who has stayed to sleep on the
skin-rug in front of my bed, watching over me on my sickbed; is it Sofie who has fallen asleep, waiting for the knock on the shutter? But no, I am no longer a child and Dulsie is long dead and Sofie too; it is Annie’s daughter who is watching over me here and who has fallen asleep because she is young and tired out from the day’s work, and because a dying old woman in a bed means nothing to her – why should she feel anything for me, who is no relation of hers, and why should she be grateful for Maans’s generosity? She is asleep and it does not matter, for what more can I possibly need now and what cause would I have to call her? Annie’s daughter – her name I cannot remember, but that is no longer important either.

It is my own room, now I know it again, the room where I slept as a child: there is the door to the voorhuis and there the small window with its inner shutter, set deep in the wall, with its view over the yard and the shed and the outbuildings. Why can I not see it? Through the chink between shutter and sash the moon would shine into the room to show where the window was, through the small chink the narrow beam of moonlight would fall into the room to flash in the mirror. If I wait I shall see once more that dark square outlined by the moonlight, the shutter opening soundlessly and the moonlight spilling over the floor, and my brother Pieter outside, placing his hands on the window-sill and hoisting himself up to land inside.

But no, no more; no, I remember now, and in the darkness certainty comes to my bewildered thoughts and memories. In later years the windows were fitted with glass panes: how would Pieter hoist himself through the window if he should come now? And the shed and the outside room where he used to sleep fell into ruins, so that Maans had them demolished and Pieter himself is dead and rests under the chiselled stone I ordered from Oom Appie and paid for myself.

There is no reason to get up now, even if I could still move; there
is nothing more I could do and no one I could search for, for over the years everyone has gone, one after the other. Where are you in this vast darkness, and can you hear me? Speak to me if you are near, here where I lie alone in the night, unable to sleep, trapped with my bewildered thoughts and memories at the end of my life; speak to me, you who know more than I do, and explain to me what I cannot understand. But there is nothing, no voice in the dark or even the swish of a dress, black in the depth of the shadows: I am alone here where I lie, speechless and paralysed, with the thoughts I am powerless to control and the memories I can no longer evade, the relentless knowledge I would rather avoid.

I remember too much, for during my entire life I had too much occasion to look and listen, to see and hear, and to remember. I sat with them and helped pour the coffee, handed round the plates, took away the tray; I heard them talk, about the marriages and the deaths, the consistorial meetings and the auction sales, the shiny black horse-drawn cart and the white marble stone, everything they considered important, and now that they are dead, I still remember it all. I sat with them and heard the silences between the words, the hesitation before the answer, the scarcely perceptible evasion; I saw the look in the eyes or the quick movement of the hands that the others missed because their minds were on more important affairs, and I still remember it. I did not gather this information intentionally, nor did I ask to retain it, but here at the end of my life, reflecting on all this accumulated wisdom, I suddenly realise that it is not meaningless, like the incidental swelling of the soil that indicates the hidden paths where the mole has tunnelled. All that is left is this knowledge; all that remains to me of this life is this collected wisdom.

How far should I go back? As far as I can remember, to the day we took out the honey, Jakob and Pieter and Gert, and they carried me
back on their shoulders because I was so young that I was tired out and could not walk home, that long trek home with the young men laughing and jesting about the accomplishments of the day, with the harsh, faded landscape aglow for a moment in the light of the setting sun and the dams glittering in the distance? Or further still, to a time that has come to seem just as real to me through anecdotes and tales and inference, to the ramshackle cart and the small herd of scabby sheep, to the pleated caps and the embroidered apron and the bright red and blue of the bowls displayed in the wall-cupboard? I do not know: I am tired and I want to rest but sleep will not come, and there is no sign that this night will end; only the thoughts and memories remain, and avoiding them is no longer possible.

The darkness before my eyes, the helpless body, and this banked mass of memories through which I have to feel my way blindly. Words and images of more than seventy years, fragments of conversation, an incidental remark from servants gossiping in the kitchen, a few words spoken by a herdsman in the veld, anecdotes and tales, verses, rhymes, and the psalms sung around the table in the voorhuis of an evening, or later in the little village church, flashes I no longer know where to place, the house and yard in the moonlight, the moonlight glittering in the mirror and the distant glitter as the water in the dams catches the daylight, the spekbos clear-white on the ridges in springtime, the luminous silver of the renosterbos in the diffused sunlight of the late afternoon, and the dead lamb, its eyes pecked out by crows, the reebok slung sideways across the saddle, dried blood around its jaws; the quill pen, the pocket knife, the candlestick on the bedside table; the coolness of the pane against my fingers and the coolness of the stone, the hard, straight edge of the splashboard under my hand as I stand beside the Cape cart. This is what I have left, and all that remains for me, awake here in the dark, is to sift through it, alone, with no hand
to guide me along, no whispering voice in my ear. I was a quiet, timid child, whose presence went unnoticed by all, an inquisitive child with alert, attentive eyes, who observed and remembered, and my memory and mind are no less clear now, even though they are the only faculties I have retained. To sift through and arrange the bits and pebbles and chips, the patches and threads and ribbons and notes, and finally to piece together from these the story in which I have figured over all these years, silent and vigilant in the corner or at the edge of the company, and perhaps also to understand, and even to forgive, to have all the unspoken anxieties, reproaches and sorrows eliminated, the last scores settled. To remember.

I must get up and journey back into the past, through the dark, alone across the years. I must move through the darkness of the sleeping house, soundlessly so no one will hear me, and pull open the front door; I must cross the threshhold and venture outside.

The moon has not yet risen, but in the faded, diffused glow of the stars I can recognise the world of my youth, the wide landscape of my life, the bleak, faded land of shrub and stone, the harsh land of frost, snow and drought. Bitter land where I was born, meagre shaly soil where they will dig my grave inside the stone walls of the graveyard. I should like to move out through the sleeping house once more, to take leave of my life; I should like to go out one last time and behold the land, in sunlight and starlight, and follow the narrow path to the graveyard beyond the ridge, my hand groping among the stacked stones of the encircling wall. Never again. Only in my memories, sleepless in the dark, shall I still tread the old paths; only in my thoughts shall I still move soundlessly through the familiar darkness of the house, back across all the years.

Get up and go, get up and walk through that darkness; pull open the door and leave the sleeping house, cross the threshhold to the yard
where the land stretches out in starlight. Again and again I follow that familiar path, unnoticed in the dark, again and again I waver at that door, waver on the threshhold, only then reaching for the bolt and pulling open the door, only then venturing out into the night.

Meagre land, bitter land, beloved land. How did I come to spend my entire life here yet never really notice you, or notice you so rarely, even then sparing you barely a glance, that even now I remain unfulfilled, always yearning to see you again? Meagre land, sparse land, harsh land of shrub and stone, dry springs and fountains of brackish water; our fountains were the only ones never to run dry and our dams the only ones to glitter in the light. Land without mercy where the wild cat savages the sheep and the eagle swoops down on the lamb, where the herdsman is found dead in his shelter, covered with the fine, sifting snow, and the hunter loses his footing on the rock; unforgiving land, where brother is set against brother and servant against master, where the trespass remains unforgiven and the written word perpetuates the lie, the chiselled inscription is rendered untrue.

I must carry on, barefoot in the half-light of the night, step by step, on the trail of every memory; every remembered word I must examine, and every half-forgotten one attempt to recall; along the rocky ridges, in the dry crevices and hollows of this arid land, borne from one disclosure to the next. I must search for the rare fountain, the dripping of water and the moisture of soil that may have retained a footprint.

Bright land, gleaming silver-grey land drifting away from me in the night, where I marvel at the way every branch of the harpuisbos sparkles as its dense, whorled leaves reflect the glimmer of the light, and every rock glows dimly on the ridges. The porcupine disappears into the shadows between the shrubs, the yellow cobra slithers past my feet, and jackal trot along the rocky ridges, paying no heed to the grazing sheep. I have nothing more to fear, walking barefoot and alone
through the veld and over the stones in my flapping nightgown until I reach the edge of the escarpment where the vertical rockface falls away, the sheer drop invisible in the depth of the shadows as if it were not there, barefoot on the rocky ledge at the edge of the world, the rock cold under my feet and the piercing wind blowing straight at me, yet I do not freeze or falter. Beneath me lie the mountain ranges, cliffs, chasms and plains of the Karoo, one mountain range after another ranked to the horizon; beneath me lie the warm lowlands filled with the herbal scent of shrubs, and one last time I survey it all; but then I turn back to the low inclines of the plateau where the wind blows so piercingly, back to the land where I was born, the bitter land, the beloved land, and slowly in the starlight, over shrubs and coarse clumps of grass, past the ridges where the jackal hides, through the dry streams with their stony beds and fissures where water has not flowed for many years, I walk back. At last I see in the distance once again the glitter of the dams and the dark shape of the house with its high thatched roof set against the ridge, the kraal and the shed and the outbuildings in the background, the radiant pear trees covered with blossoms in spring; and past the orchard the footpath leading to the graveyard with its few stone mounds and headstones in the shelter of the encircling wall of stacked stones.

BOOK: This Life
5.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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