The Greatest Show on Earth

When the father made his weekly trip to Pofadderkranz, he had sometimes taken the twins along for the drive. Now Mrs. Prinsloo went with him instead.

Circus Poster

ON Tuesdays the express train racing from Rhodesia to the Cape of Good Hope would tear through the silence of the hamlet. The engineer would sound the train whistle a mile away, its signal sending a forlorn note through the clear air of the sparsely inhabited semi-desert African landscape, and the two children would drop whatever they were doing to run out onto the red-dust road outside the hotel and watch.

The sun-baked countryside lay flat under the hot sky. In the distance the white pennant of smoke unfurling from the locomotive would become visible against the blue, the faint throb of wheels and pistons gaining in volume as the distance fell away. From a huddle of thatched mud huts at the edge of the hamlet a few ragged black children would emerge to wait, to watch. In the hotel kitchen the cook would look up from the vegetables she was peeling, expectant, pausing from her work until she had seen the train flash past her window. Hotel residents, hearing its approach, would become alert, anticipation lifting, for a moment, the blankness from their faces. Over at the dam-construction site the workmen would straighten up at the sound of the whistle, their hands shielding their eyes from the glare of the sun, to watch as the train wound its way over the barren terrain.

Suddenly it was there, ripping the stillness, gusting coal grit into their eyes, its rush of wind flattening the girl's dress against her thin body, thrusting locks of brown hair against her cheek, lifting the boy's tow-yellow hair. Their heads would turn a small arc as their eyes followed the train's fleeting passage. The black children would run alongside for a few yards with cupped palms out, yelling, "Penny penny penny!" Sometimes coins would be tossed from the windows, sometimes an orange, a brown-paper bag of stale sandwiches, buns; the black children would scramble to retrieve the booty. Then the train would be gone. Quiet would settle back in their ears, the girl's cotton dress hang limp again. The plume of smoke would remain suspended against the blue, leaving a sooty, metallic taste on their tongues as it dissolved. The cook would go back to her half-peeled potato, the men to their digging; vacancy would return to the faces of the people in the hotel rooms.


THE children were twins. Their mother had died, and they were sent for the winter school holidays from the city where they lived with two adult sisters and a black family retainer to their father, who ran a hotel in a remote corner of Cape Province. A thousand miles from nowhere, their father said of the place, just south of the Kalahari. The aching bareness of the region was a premonition of the encroachment of the dust, the aridity, the heat and glare -- the true desert. Extending farther than the eye could see around the hamlet, the dry, baked earth revealed stony outcroppings of the continent's substructure, lying like bones partly exposed. Scrubby brush, thornbush, humble in its need for existence, gripped the earth, breaking the undulating flatness.

Water lay far under the parched ground, and deep wells had to be sunk to bring the precious substance up from springs that arose in the cool dark netherworld. Pumps that kept the water trickling into storage tanks were powered by wind, which kept the silver blades of windmills turning lazily against the blue. The windmills drew the eye up to the blank sky in the way the church spires of Europe draw the eye heavenward.

The surface of the continent here, in its inhospitality, stored none of the sun's heat of day to warm the nights; when the burning red disk sank behind the unbroken line of the horizon, night descended, hard, bone-chilling. Kerosene stoves would be lit to warm the public rooms, hot-water bottles offered to take the chill off beds.


IN the silence after the train whistle had grown faint and disappeared, the black children would wander back into their kraal, the twins return to the shade of the hotel verandah or the courtyard, where thirteen rooms were built around a giant blue gum tree, which cast a mauve pool of shadow over the hard, dusty ground. There was no Room 13. The thirteenth room had been numbered 14, because guests declined to occupy a room with a thirteen on the door. Landing in such a forsaken place seemed sufficient misfortune without courting further ill luck.

The hamlet was called Doringkraal ("Thorny Place") Station, though it was not a real station -- merely a siding for a branch line of the railroad network that linked the vast subcontinent.

The silence would prevail unbroken until Thursday, when the Zambezi Express, firebox stoked red and high, would again shatter it briefly in a full-speed rush from the vineyards and whitewashed colonial mansions at the southernmost tip of Africa, where white settlers had first stepped ashore, northward to the heart of the continent, where the Victoria Falls thundered into the Zambezi River, where lions prowled in the sere grass and elephants browsed on branches wrenched off high trees. The twins and the black children would run out to see the train pass, shading their eyes from the glare until the last remnant of the pennant of steam fluttered to nothingness and merged with the empty landscape.


THE twins' father worked hard and had little time to spare for them. They were called Sonny and Sissie, their given names all but forgotten with disuse. The girl did not enjoy having to spend school holidays at the hotel; she had nothing to do there. Her friends were all in the city; she was bored, lonely, imprisoned indoors by the brutal heat. She came for the reassurance of being near her father, and because she did not like to be separated from her brother. The boy loved the dry heat, the keen, clean smell of the air, the silence; he felt the pull of the desert.

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