Jagersfontein: a bony and sun-beaten dorp, ruffled within the sprawling veld and reachless sky. Midafternoon: the corrugated roofed houses, wide dusty streets and starched churches, remain mute, inert – apart from the anomalous sounds of a single piano issuing from a small brick house. On the outskirts: mine dumps – grey tombstones of the world’s oldest diamond mine, reminders of better days, when ‘jagger’ diamonds had turned the outpost into a boomtown, yielding the world’s clearest and biggest exemplars: The ‘Excelsior Stone,’ the ‘Reitz diamond,’ amongst others. The diamond rush around the prosperous ‘Big Hole’ was short lived, and decades later Jagersfontein was once again reduced to a forgotten district in South Africa’s interior, unheeded – a boere stad.
Mid 1940s, just before Germany’s capitulation: three of them in the living room, sparsely furnished but cozy. Faint fragrance of newly watered geraniums from the mantlepiece merge with the lingering odor of the midday meal: toad in the hole and sauerkraut.
Seated, the father, fragile, in an armchair, close to the cold empty fireplace. Legs crossed, the floppy khaki trousers tucked tight around his thin thighs and knobbly knees; sockless feet pushed into well-worn leather slippers. His white shirt is spotless, frayed at the collar, buttoned up to the sagging neck, his orange paisley necktie hanging off duty and loose. Plain golden cufflinks adorn the shirt sleeves, accentuating the blue-veined arabesque of his hands. Face, translucent, mapped with myriad fine lines, the sensitive contours enhanced by slim, silver framed spectacles and a smoky halo of silky thinning hair, parted unevenly through the middle, puffy wisps extending over his ears. Eyes, a brittle blue. Only the eyebrows hint at determination, arched sternly above the level nose, dented above the bridge. A few deep-cut wrinkles fork into his pale purple lips, which hint at tears never wept. The rilled hands are sunk comfortably in his lap within each other’s loyal hold. His head, held high, reminiscent of a bird’s, is lost in memories – the ageing father, German, into the fifth year of his ‘soft internment.’
The mother, ensconced on the couch, sewing. On her right, an open-lidded rattan basket muddled with buttons, colored cotton reels, rubber bands, needles, well-stocked pink pin cushion, name tags, zippers, and more. On her left, a pile of clothes waiting to be mended, darned, made whole. Her legs, thick calved, hover slightly above the wood floor, the wool slippered feet quivering faintly to the rhythm of her pulse. Her brown and airy calico dress with a wide creamy collar, edged with crocheted lace, ripples and whispers at the slightest movement. A jade brooch glistens above her left breast. The waves of grey hair are held in place by two mother of pearl combs and an almost imperceptible hairnet. She is knitting socks, her breath aligned to the regular clicks of the needles, the mouth apart, her tongue resting along the lower row of her false teeth. The green eyes are always ready to laugh and respond kindly to the world – the mother who used to live in the bustling city of Durban.
By the piano, a girl of thirteen, the daughter – a laatlammetjie. Tiny feet in white socks and shiny black sandals that intermittently tip down on the pedals like a ballerina. The arms move with ease over the ivory keys, the fingers fluid, setting tones adrift with a musical intelligence beyond her tender age. A few years back she’d won competitions, performed concertos in Durban; a child prodigy. Piles of music lie on and next to the Grotrian-Steinweg upright. But now she plays by heart, the music streaming through her slender body from the periphery, down and along the ivory keys, the wood and felt hammers, the taut metal strings, until the sounds drain into the large iron frame, the melodies whirling around the sound box, before lifting off – unlocked and freed from bondage. They fill, then spread outward through the brick walls, toward arcane peripheries – alive, active, imperceptibly changing the dorp and veld outside. She’s going through her favorite pieces, mostly sonatas by angelic Mozart, ‘Papa’ Haydn, and swarthy Beethoven, with a smattering of Bach preludes or a Schubert impromptu. Her earnest face intermittently melts into smiles that reflect the nuance of mood inherent in the respective motifs. A red silk ribbon holds her undulating and thick mahogany hair together in a long and lax ponytail. On either side, her parents, not so much hearing the music as absorbing it, note for silvery note. The daughter, who could have been their granddaughter.
“Christa?” It is the mother, now with a threaded needle, bending over a blouse. There is no immediate response, and none expected. Christa always plays a piece through to the end, rarely letting herself be rushed. Ending the Beethoven bagatelle, the petite girl relaxes her upright posture and stares dreamily up at the bust of Chopin on top of the black lacquered piano next to the brown pyramidal wooden metronome, before spinning around on her adjustable piano stool.
“Yes, Mom?” Her clear face broadens into a smile, two dimples emerging. Another pause as the mother grunts the finishing touches to the newly sewn hem, before her hands flop over it in finality. “Done it.” She looks over at Christa, who is swiveling gently back and forth on her stool. “Sorry to interrupt your playing, but would you go down to the grocery store and get a few things?”
“Now?” She twirls back to face the piano and starts playing ‘In the Mood,’ singing, “Sure, just tell me what you want, ‘cause I’m in the mood now.” She ends the jaunty piece with a flourish, which makes her father smile, clap twice, before interlacing his fingers and returning to his reverie.
“Not much.” She’s smiling, eyes pressed together with crinkled mirth. “Just some mielie-meal, a loaf of bread, some washing powder… oh, and a quart of milk and a pound of sugar. But you will have to go now because ‘Jasbecks’ will be closing soon.”
“I’ll go now-now,” and she plays ‘The Sandwich’ by Mozart, getting faster and faster until she jumps up with the swipe of the last chord, immediately hopping around to her father’s side, giving him a kiss on the cheek, which is returned with a faint smile and a soft pat on her shoulder. “I’ll need some money, Mom.”
“My bag is in the kitchen. Hurry now, my goggatjie.”
Christa skips into the kitchen, rummages for a few bills and coins in the ostrich leather handbag, grabs a basket from the pantry and runs out the backdoor shouting, “Bye,” over her shoulder.
“I’ll have tea ready when you get back,” she hears her mother’s muted voice as she rushes to the shed. Under the fragrant jacaranda tree, she stops to sniff the scented air, tentatively, then deeply, her skin prickling with appreciation. A gust of cool wind blows loose flowers down from the blooming tree, several landing on her head and shoulders. With the second gust she wonders whether to run back and fetch a jersey. The Karoo can get chilly in the evenings. Instead, she hurries on, wheeling her red bicycle from the dark shed.
It’s a ten-minute ride along corrugated and potholed dirt roads, and it is with relief that she approaches Jasbecks, the Lebanese trading store. She freewheels to a halt, dismounts hastily, leans the bike against the front wall, and wriggles the basket from the handlebars. As an afterthought she brushes some of the red dust from her black sandals and white socks as best she can. About to enter, her attention is caught by the whimper of a tattered ridgeback who is tethered to a witgat tree with a short leather thong.
Hesitatingly, she watches the dog’s desperate struggle, gnawing at the reem, froth forming around his mouth. Noticing her, he stops his freedom fight and stares intently at her with his clear agate eyes, one leg lifted questioningly, the slender tail venturing a wag in the hope of release. She knows that ridgebacks love to hunt and run – to be free. Feeling helpless she enters the shop, muttering, “Poor thing.”
Christa steps from the stark afternoon glare into the dark, cool and dense interior. As always, she flinches at the ill composed smells – the acrid odors of cleaning detergents, musty blankets, moldy perishables, stale tobacco, dusty tools, cookers, paraffin lamps. Wrinkling her nose, she hesitates and glances over at Jasbeck’s son, who’s about her age, seated behind the counter. He’s sunk into a Superman comic, loudly masticating a fistful of Chappies chewing gum, blowing and popping bubbles. A chrome transistor radio, wheezy with static, pops songs on the metal shelf above him, next to silver-wrapped rolls of chewing tobacco and yellow bulk-packs of Lion Matches. His slick black hair is held in place by a generous dab of Brylcreem, in perfect imitation of the superhero. He does not look up from the garish thrill pages, as her meek entrance darkens the doorway, casting a plaintive shadow over him. She stands a little at a loss, feeling like she’s intruding. Quietly she treads to the rear of the shop, away from being ignored. Her eyes quickly accustom themselves to the dark, and she moves down the narrow aisles, the shelves crammed with an abundance of cheapness – a trinket museum of antiquated necessities and kitsch luxuries. Rows of biltong and reels soft sticky black-studded flycatchers hang between carcasses of cheap steel string guitars: the muddy brown ones and the smoky condensed milk white guitars with grey clouds flitting across. She inevitably bumps into them, releasing hollow moans. Looking at the plastic inflatable beach balls and colorful buckets and spades, she wonders who would buy them, so far removed from any ocean or beach.
Hastily she grabs what she needs, adds a packet of gingerbread biscuits to sweeten teatime, and plonks the groceries on the counter in front of the lip-smacking Superboy, his chewing chin still juddering like an automaton. He does not look up. He never does and she wishes jovial Mr. Jasbeck was serving her. Jasbeck senior always tells jokes and makes customers feel welcome. She stares impatiently at the boy, annoyed. The comic’s cover catches her interest for a fleeting moment: Superman flying over a metropolis and getting zapped by bolts of lightning. How stupid, she thinks, fascinated nonetheless, never having read a comic before. With the turning of the page the boy deigns to become aware of her and squints up, his eyes filmed over, in another world. Going through the items he presses the prices into the till with his lubberly fingers until the cash register’s bell clangs in finality. She hands him the money. He feeds the register, rams it shut, and flies back to Superworld. She quickly packs the items into the basket and hurries out, back into rigid brightness. Remembering the ridgeback, she turns toward him, but the dog’s gone, the cord chewed right through. Though glad for the dog, she’s disappointed, having wanted to cuddle him, maybe even exchange a few comforting words. Christa wiggles the filled basket onto the handlebars, turns the bike around and starts to peddle homewards. She chooses a shortcut along the outskirts of town, past the mine dumps, though the difference is negligible: at most a minute. But it makes for a change.
She’s alone on the road. No cars, farmer’s bakkie, or Africans to wave to. Eyes on the gravel, she watches out for orange clods and the unavoidable corrugated strips, formed by the back-and-forth of cloudbursts and dry heat. The chain rattles wildly against the mudguard, and her whole body is jolted through. She fares no better in the sandy areas, the wheels losing traction, slowing her down. A smooth stretch promises temporary relief, giving her a chance to lift her head and relax. Seconds later she barely misses two fast slithering snakes that cross her path. She slows down, passing a row of shacks to her left that had once sheltered workers, but now stand empty, dilapidated. To her right, a smaller mine dump, appearing like a molehill in the vast expanse of veld; a dehumanized deserted tract, a scab in the arid wasteland, waiting in vain to be plowed, irrigated, and tended. From the town’s center she hears the church bell crack five times, the brittle tintinnabulations getting stuck like splinters in the scrubby veld. She pushes for more speed. A sudden crust of wind peels off sharply, snatching the back wheel. The bike lurches dangerously. She squeals, wrestling with the handlebars in a fierce attempt to keep her balance, legs outstretched for support. She regains control, the basket thumping against the front mudguard. She pushes down hard on the pedals. The wind squall gives up and dissolves. Not a grass helm stirs.
Her lengthening shadow looms out in front of her as the sun treks resolutely towards the horizon behind her. This dark partner offers little consolation, who, with perfect agility adapts to the slightest change, mocking her movements like a distorted puppet. Yet, she fancies seeing colors circulating through its darkling presence, caused by the dance of weariness from the sneak attack. Out of the corner of her eye she spots two grey goshawks flying fast in the opposite direction, vanishing in the screen of setting light. The ride has never taken so long.
As she pedals along, she thinks of Mozart whose melodies are never far from her mind. She pictures the maestro walking through a verdant cherry orchard, popping those sweet deep-red marbles into his mouth, delicately held between the thumb and forefinger, composing melodies triggered by the intensities of taste. Out of a curious impulse, she shouts, “Amadeus, throw your wig to the wind, rip off your fancy jacket, tear your frilly shirt from your torso, kick your bronze buckled boots across the manicured lawn. Snatch instead a knobkerrie and saunter, bare chested, across the African veld. Hey Wolferl, how would that make you feel?” She laughs, picturing the scene, though the unchecked utterance takes her by surprise. To avoid further fanciful ramblings, she lifts herself off the saddle, leans forward with the full weight of her lithe body, and pushes down hard on the pedals. Her intention, however, is checked almost instantaneously by a cluster of potholes, forcing her to maneuver the bike in haphazard zigzags, chain rattling like a hacking cough, hair coming undone, the red ribbon fluttering off into the dust behind her. She can scarcely keep steady, which infuriates her. Then, instead of dodging the holes, she steers straight ahead along the deeply rutted road, yelling with fierce determination, “Master Mozart, had you lived here – having only known deserts and dongas, open veld or the dense and tangled jungles – what symphonies would you have composed… What diabolical concertos? What orchestras would then have dared to perform your works?” Her words shudder and shiver through her rattled frame. “What genius would have possessed you? How would the world have coped with your creations?”
A startled meerkat jumps out in front of the slight girl with the fluttering hair. She pulls both hand-brakes as tightly as she can: skids, misses, crashes – the groceries whirling and spilling through the air into the sand-scuffed soil. Dazed and sprawled over the ground she sees the hapless animal scuttle off to safety in the opposite direction, chased by a flash of wind. She gets up, rubs and slaps the dust from her blouse and dress. Blood trickles from her right knee and left elbow. Raising her fist into the air she shouts, “You’d hate it, Mozart, you’d hate it, hate it – this desolation, this emptiness, this wasteland.” She gulps and wipes away slithering tears, leaving ochre streaks across the cheeks.
She scans the skies. In the distance, the horizon is bruised with clouds, but something about that inflating mass puzzles her. The rusty brown cumulus is unlike any she’s seen before, swelling before her eyes. She bites her lips, rolls her tongue. Tiny dust devils appear from nowhere and cavort around her, before flitting away like crazy will o’ the wisps across the vlakte. Suddenly she knows and names the nemesis: “Sandstorm!”
Of course: She recalls the writhing ridgeback chewing through the leather reem, the slithering snakes, the two raptors, the startled meerkat. They’d sensed the impending dust storm all along. The sudden realization sharpens all her senses. Nature, which had appeared so empty, dead and desolate just moments ago, erupts and heaves to life: Flocks of birds fly overhead; duikers dart nervously between acacias. Close by, dassies run for cover in rocky outcrops, midst a host of scurrying lizards, snakes, and waddling tortoises. Large herds of springbok emerge from the distance, hurtling, jumping and pronking through the air, leaving clouds of dust in their wake, accompanied by other antelopes. To her left, a galloping gemsbok thunders past. The veld has awakened: desperate fugitives seeking safety. How could such barren terrain contain so much life? From where do they come? Even the plants appear to be tugging at the ground to uproot themselves, pleading with the wind to whisk them away before the full force of the sandstorm is bound to devour them. As she peers around, transfixed and amazed, she mutters, “No, Amadé, I was wrong! You would have loved this.”
No sooner said than a massive swarm of bees heads straight toward her, extending beyond the width of the road and reaching past the tops of telephone poles. Released from a momentary paralysis, she rips the basket from the crippled handlebars and sticks it hastily over her head. Just in time! The bees pelt and pop against the basket, her chest and shoulders. She drops down and hunches up on the dirt road, engulfed by the centripetal drone, the blood from her scraped knee oozing and dropping into the dusty earth, immediately absorbed like ink on blotting paper. May the Queen Bee not land on me,she thinks in quiet desperation. She’d be smothered by the whole hive if that were to happen. The pelting against the basket and body intensifies. She contracts herself into a tight taut ball like an armadillo. Why didn’t I see it coming – I should have sensed it like the animals.
As quickly as it came, the buzzing barrage fades away, leaving her cocooned on the road – alone, unscathed. She peers cautiously out from under her basket-helmet, watching the swarm’s embodied mind ascend toward the sinking sun like a lost soul seeking its source. Seconds later she jumps to her feet. In the dim rust-red east, the burgeoning sandstorm now rages hundreds of feet into the sky. The colossal wave covers the entire horizon, rolling towards her – a tsunami of wind-tossed sand. Sundry lightning flashes zip through the murky lower regions. Unbridled squalls snarl and tug at her. She drops the basket and runs, leaving the spilled groceries and her mangled red bicycle beside the road, looking like a monster mantis. Tiny twisters lash out and give chase. In her wake she hears the plangent roar of the encroaching beast – smells the static.
Tears drip from her face as she sprints homeward, leaving minute craters in the dust behind her. And as she runs with the densifying wind and sand closing in, the nebulous disorder of her soul swells and clears. The sound of the storm merges with the soft thuds of her sandaled feet as they flit over the gravel. Nature’s macro-rhythm unites with the pace of her lean limbs, rapid panting, and surging blood that pulses through her heaving head and chest. Like a blossoming flower she senses herself opening up, welcoming the unfolding lucidity, while succumbing to a higher power with devotional abandon. She ignores the storm’s temporal fermentations, the stinging red heads of sand biting into her, the tentacled wind sucking and curling round her heels. She feels nothing but sounds unleashed, and experiences the voice of the storm as a mighty choir streaming through her, each grain of sand a peal of victory; she hears a battle conducted with smiting gongs of determination, a majestic rage, harmonized to ignite the terrestrial elements into sweeping motions – the words of the invisibles elevated into song, Gaia’s impulsive choral performed in lawful consequence to the human mind withered with doubt and prejudice, necessitating the maelstrom. Instead of submission she hears tonal triumph. Beethoven would have loved this too, she thinks as she runs, stumbles, falls.
The three of them in the living room. It is late. The storm has passed. A pot of tea, wedges of diagonally cut sandwiches, and a bowl of buttermilk rusks are neatly arranged on a tray by the curtained window, untouched. A small fire crackles in the hearth, flames pursuing wisps of smoke up the chimney. A paraffin lamp gives off ambient light.
“Do you think she’ll be alright?” It is the voice of the mother, sitting left of the couch on the piano stool.
“She’ll be fine. It’s best to let her rest.” The father leans forward in his armchair.
“Shame, the poor goggatjie getting caught up in that horrible storm.” She strokes her daughter’s cheeks who’s lying on the couch, eyes closed, still dressed in her dust covered skirt and blouse; her elbow and knee wrapped in gauze, spots of red seeping through.
“We can be so thankful that the worst part of the sandstorm spared us, though it will take a while to clear all the debris… restore electricity.”
“How lucky that you found her so quickly… that she was so close to home. Poor thing.”
“More than luck, I believe.” He sits back in his armchair. “Do you recall,” – his voice fades into the distance – “that sandstorm we had before the war? Just like this it was.” He scratches his chin. “Haven’t had one like that since, have we?”
“No, we haven’t.” The mother feels her sleeping daughter’s forehead. “Do you really think she is alright?”
“I remember how uneasy that storm had made me feel. Like nature’s warning of doom to come. And it really did turn out to be an admonition of death, didn’t it? A red and bloody wind before the war. And us, now… interned, forced to live here in this God forsaken place.” He breathes deeply, ruffling his hand through his poufy white hair. “What does it portend? I fear no good will come of this storm.”
“No Dad, no!” It’s the voice of the daughter, eyes blinking, pushing herself up from the couch.
“Easy, easy, Christa, lie down again. You’ve had quite a shock. You could have died.”
“But Dad, I must tell you, really,” – her eyes are wide open and bright – “I heard it singing, I heard the storm’s music… it was so… I don’t know… liberating! Dad, Mom, if we could sing like that through all storms…” She falls back on the couch. “Really, it’s a gift… it’s going to be alright.”
Eric G. Müller was born in Durban, South Africa. After graduating from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, he continued his studies in England and Germany. He now lives in upstate New York where he teaches music, drama, and English literature. He has published novels and children’s books. Poetry, articles and short stories have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies and magazines.
© 2020, Eric G. Müller