DAN JACOBSON was born in Johannesburg in 1929, graduated from the University of Wilwatersrand, and came to Leland Stanford on a fellowship. The author of five volumes of fiction, he now lives in London, where he is at work on a long novel.
I WAS lying in the shade of a peach tree that grew to the side of the lawn. Behind me sprawled our house, with its broad red stoep, its white pillars and white wooden shutters. When I raised myself on one elbow I could see something of the street beyond our fence: meager trees grew at regular intervals from the sand of the pavement, and the black tarmac gleamed in the sunlight. Overhead, above the thin, tapering leaves of the peach tree, was the blue sky and the sun. It was a Sunday morning; my parents were out of the house, but I could hear the African servants talking idly to one another in the backyard. The sun was warm; a contrasting coolness rose from the grass underneath me; in my nostrils there was the bitter almond scent of the peach leaves I had plucked and crushed between my fingers. Somehow, every element, every sensation I was conscious of seemed to contribute to the morning’s wide, full stillness; each was part of its calm. I held a book in my hands, but I wasn’t reading it.
I was roused by a strange rumbling sound coming from the road, and sat up, wondering what was making it. The noise grew louder; within the rumble I could hear the squeak of metal, the crunch of sand or gravel against the tar. Drawn by curiosity, I went to the fence and looked up the road.
I can still remember the shock I felt when I saw what it was that had broken so clumsily into the peace and silence of the morning. The noise I had heard was that of a funeral procession. But what a funeral procession! What a cortege of mourners! What a hearse! On a flat wooden two-wheeled barrow of the kind used to carry vegetables and coops of chickens in Lyndhurst’s market square, a metal frame had been erected, from which there hung a canopy of a few black strips of cloth. Beneath this wretched canopy, naked on the planks of the barrow, there rested a small coffin. As the wheels went around and around on the tar, metal rims grating, the barrow shook at every joint. And the coffin on it shook too.
The coffin was that of a child; it was a plain wooden box without handles or ornament of any kind. At its roughly sawed corners the heads of a few nails shone brightly. The child in the coffin must have been even younger than I was at the time — the box wasn’t more than three feet long. Next to it, on the planks, there lay a spade.
The barrow was level with me; then it had gone by. None of the three people following it seemed to have seen me. The man pushing the barrow was a young, strongly built African, very black in color, dressed in a pair of shorts and a shirt. His head was bare, and so were his feet. The calf muscles of each leg bunched as he took his strides offf the balls of his feet, leaning forward slightly against the barrow. His head was lowered, and from his mouth there came a wordless, tuneless chant. Behind him walked two African women, with docks on their heads, long cotton dresses trailing around their ankles, and fringed shawls over their shoulders. They both clutched their shawls together with their hands in front of their mouths, so that their faces were veiled, hidden.
No one else was in the street; no one else seemed to be standing in any of the gardens to watch the procession go by.
Why did I follow them? The brutal, pathetic unexpectedness of the sight on such a morning had something to do with my action, I know. So, too, did my own solitariness at the time. Even more compelling was the fact that the coffin was that of a child, not of an adult. In any case, on an impulse I could no more have resisted than anticipated, I went to the gate and, at a distance of about fifty yards, began to walk after the group.
GROANING and rumbling, the barrow went down the road. We covered the distance of one block, a second, a third. Here and there someone working in his garden paused for a moment to stare, or an African walking up the road stopped, shook his head, and then went on. No one seemed to associate me with the group; how could anyone have guessed that I, a white child walking by himself, was following it? But I wouldn’t have cared anyway, even if some bystander had become curious about what I was doing. I followed under a compulsion I did not understand but could not disobey. I had eyes only for the powerful legs of the man pushing the barrow, the bowed heads of the women, the light, shaking box that contained the body of a child younger than myself. The houses we were now passing between were much smaller and closer to the pavement than those higher up; we had come into an area which I was usually nervous about entering alone, because of the rough, filthy-kneed Afrikaner children who played and fought on the pavements here. But hardly anyone was around this morning.
We passed a police station, a row of shops, all of them closed, and the road then descended into a subway and under the railway lines. Beyond the railway, the road was no longer tarred; the area was an outright slum, inhabited by poor whites and Cape Coloreds, bordered by acres upon acres of the barren green mine dumps which lay all around the outskirts of our town. The dumps were enclosed within a fierce barbed-wire fence twelve feet high, with a twisted coil of the wire running all the way along the top. The group with the barrow turned and followed a dusty, pitted road that ran parallel to the railway lines. Soon there were no houses around us at all. On one side were the railway lines, on the other the barbed wire and mine dumps.
I thought I knew where we were going. About a mile farther down the road there was an African “location,” thrust down on a flat stretch of ground where the mining company’s wire curved away from the railway. However, when the group came to a fork in the road, only the two women went straight on toward the location; the man pushed the barrow some way down the road to the left before halting and throwing himself down in the shade of a little camel thorn tree that grew to the side of the road. He left the barrow with the coffin on it standing in the sun. The women were soon lost to sight in the confusion of rust-colored, dust-colored shacks that stretched away indistinguishably across the bare, level earth. Although the first of the shacks was only a few hundred yards away, and in spite of the strength of the sunlight, the location looked unsubstantial, insignificant, dim.
I waited at the fork, on the side of the road nearest to the railway lines; I stared through a wire fence at a locomotive and a few goods trucks standing idly on a spur of the line. Very few people passed by; all of them were Africans, going to or coming from the location. Some were on foot, others rode on bicycles whose tires hissed through the sand. They all glanced at me, some of them smiled, but none of them spoke to me. Nor did any of them seem to notice the man and the coffin, half concealed by the thorn tree, at a distance down the side road.
Having come so far, I had to go farther. Hesitantly, hearing the sound of my own footsteps on the road and watching my shadow in front of me, I approached the man. Only when I was within a few feet of him did I look up. He had drawn himself up at my approach; he was sitting with his knees raised in front of his chest and his arms behind him, propping up his body. I don’t know what I had expected him to look like; I certainly hadn’t expected to find him smiling at me in the most cheerful way possible. His face was broad, his skin smooth, his teeth white. Over each eye there was a protuberance of bone which might have given his face an angry lowering aspect if his expression had not been so amused. As it was, his eyes seemed to peep slyly at me under these heavy brows, like a child’s.
“ Ja, kleinbaas,” he said to me, by way of greeting. His voice was deep and had an idle, teasing note in it. “What are you looking for?” he asked me, in Afrikaans.
He spoke so cheerfully I had to ask him, “Isn’t it your child — in there?” The question came out of my breast in two heaves. With an effort I looked from him to the coffin and pointed at it. Now that I was so close to it, I felt almost sick with fear, with a sudden repulsion against my own presence there.
The man turned his head and looked at the coffin, wrinkling his brow against the brightness of the sunlight beyond the shadow in which he lay. “Nee, my kleinbaas, it isn’t my child. The little boy in there didn’t have a father.” He glanced at me and asked, “You understand what I mean?”
I did not; the man’s words made everything seem even more strange and incomprehensible to me than it was before. How could a child not have a father? The question was as impossible for me to answer as the other which had been filling my breast ever since I had first seen the coffin: How, while I was alive, while I lay safely on the lawn at home, could a child younger than I was be dead, be nailed up in a box, be carted publicly across the town on a barrow? And soon he would be buried out of sight — that I knew, but could not believe.
“The one woman is his mother, the other is his mother’s sister,” the man said with a casual, almost contemptuous willingness to tell me what he could. “And they’re fetching the ouma, the grandmother, now. Then we go to the graveyard. The child had a sickness in his chest.” He tapped lightly, with a dust-stained hand, on his own deep chest. Then he held up a single finger of that hand. “I do all the work for a pound. Just one pound, and I make the coffin, and I take it where they want me to, and I dig the hole also.”
He sat up and squatted on his haunches. The grin was back on his face. “Kleinbaas” he said to me cajolingly, but with an unmistakable hint of a threat in his voice, “do you want to look inside? Come!” And he rose swiftly on the word.
I started as though he had hit me; I turned and ran. My heart was beating so violently in my throat I felt I must vomit it up. How had he known? I could never, never have uttered the wish, could never have admitted it to myself. Behind me, as I ran, I heard the man laughing. Then I heard a scurry in the sand. He was coming after me. The earth seemed to turn across all its width, like a great, flat wheel; I could not keep my balance on it. I fell and looked up. His smiling face was over me.
“Don’t run away, kleinbaas,” he said. His hands grasped me gently. At his touch I was sure I was going to die. Death itself was standing over me — dark, smiling, large, irresistible. I was going to be put in a box, like that other child; I was going to learn all that that child had learned. I closed my eyes and waited.
I must have fallen into total unconsciousness for a few moments, for I do not remember the man letting go of me or hearing his footsteps retreating from me. All I knew when I opened my eyes was that the man’s face was no longer between me and the sky. I did not look where he had gone. I got to my feet and took a few paces, but could not go on, I felt so weak and unsteady. There was a ditch to the side of the road, and because I didn’t want anybody to see me, I crept into it. How long I lay there, panting and sobbing, with my head on my arms and my eyes closed, I do not know. At first I cried out of fear; afterward out of a pity I felt equally for myself and the unknown, dead child whose coffin I had followed. Nor do I know how long I remained there, after I had breathed out my last sob, in a kind of dark, comforting, emotionless daze. But when at last I stood up I found, without surprise, that I was no longer afraid.
The man and his barrow were gone from the thorn tree. But I could see the wheel tracks that the barrow had left in the sand, and I began to follow them. A car passed me, with a swirl or dust at its tires, and I saw the people in it looking curiously at me. I went on walking. To the left the barbed-wire fence ran straight, interminably, the dumps of earth lying empty behind it. On the right, almost as bare of vegetation as the dumps, was a stretch of veld where a few piccanins were playing with a ball. The spaces around them made their figures look tiny. And then I saw the location’s cemetery.
It looked much like the veld where the piccanins were playing, only its surface was more irregular, broken by innumerable little mounds of earth. There was no fence around it. From hundreds of the mounds there gleamed little points of light: reflections from the jam tins which were used to hold the flowers brought by mourners. There were only one or two formal tombstones to be seen; there were a few more wooden crosses, some of them tilted at drunken angles; there were many strips of corrugated iron thrust upright into the ground, with names painted on them; there were some graves with their borders marked out carefully by small boulders laid in rows on the ground. But most of the graves were quite without adornment, means of identification, or demarcation of any kind; it was impossible to tell where each ended or began. There was not a tree, not even a bush, anywhere. Among all the low mounds and humps of earth, the people I was looking for stood out distinctly. There were three women, one of them bent and shorter than the other two, and a man working with a spade.
The women stood aside from the man, next to the barrow with the coffin on it. They did not seem to be weeping; merely watching and waiting, as I was. When the hole was a few feet deep — the rim of it came to the man’s waist when he stood in it — the man clambered out, wiped his brow, and simply picked up the coffin and carried it in his arms to the grave. The women cried out briefly, then were silent. The man slid the coffin, end foremost, into the grave and climbed in after it to lay it flat. A moment later he had climbed out again and was shoveling the earth inside the hole, working very fast.
The women waited until he had done. Then they turned and began walking toward the location, taking a shortcut across the veld. The man, alone once more, pushed the empty barrow to the road, where I was standing. The going was difficult for him among the graves, and it took him some time to draw near. Still I waited. I wanted to see the man; I wanted him to see me. I wanted to show him that I was no longer afraid.
Eventually he reached the road. He blew out his breath noisily and smiled. In his deep, mocking voice he said softly, “The baas still isn’t satisfied?”
He pointed a finger at me and shook it. “Another day, my baas. Another day.”
I began walking home, ahead of him. All the way home I heard the rumble of the barrow behind me. At the gate of the house I stood and watched the man go past; I knew he was conscious of me, but he did not look in my direction. He did not need to. His head was lowered, and from his lips there came that tuneless, wordless chant I had heard before. The muscles of his legs quivered with every long stride he took.