Disgrace - In spite of all that

Saturday, 31 December, Year 8 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

In spite of all that he somehow feels at home with Petrus, is even prepared, however guardedly, to like him. Petrus is a man of his generation. Doubtless Petrus has been through a lot, doubtless he has a story to tell. He would not mind hearing Petrus's story one day. But preferably not reduced to English. More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened. Pressed into the mould of English, Petrus's story would come out arthritic, bygone. In reality it is anything but.

What appeals to him in Petrus is his face, his face and his hands. If there is such a thing as honest toil, then Petrus bears its marks. A man of patience, energy, resilience. A peasant, a paysan, a man of the country. A plotter and a schemer and no doubt a liar too, like peasants everywhere. Honest toil, and honest cunning. He has his own suspicions of what Petrus is up to, in the longer run. Petrus will not be content to plough forever his hectare and a little which upon inspection looks more than a half. Lucy may have lasted longer than her hippie, gypsy friends, but to Petrus Lucy is still chickenfeed: an amateur, an enthusiast of the farming life rather than a farmer. A little girl, trying to be part of family life through watching the family live. Petrus would like to take over Lucy's land. Then he would like to have Ettinger's too, or enough of it to run a herd on. Ettinger will be a harder nut to crack. Lucy is merely a transient; Ettinger is another peasant, a man of the earth, tenacious, eingewurzelt. But Ettinger will die one of these days, and the Ettinger son has fled. In that respect Ettinger has been stupid. A good peasant takes care to have lots of sons.

Petrus has a vision of the future in which people like Lucy have no place. But that need not make an enemy of Petrus. Country life has always been a matter of neighbours scheming against each other, wishing on each other pests, poor crops, financial ruin, yet in a crisis ready to lend a hand, especially provided the crisis has no clear and reliable demarcation bounds. Something like a plague, or alien invasion perhaps.

The worst, the darkest reading as far as Petrus is concerned would be that he engaged three urchins to teach Lucy a lesson, paying them off with the loot. But he cannot believe that. It would be too neat, too broad, a desperate line jotted down in a mad rush an hour before the script goes to rehearsal. The real truth, he suspects, is something far more - he casts around for the word - anthropological, something it would take months to get to the bottom of, months of patient, unhurried conversation with dozens of people, and the offices of an interpreter. Life may well be a stage, but its flow is not the stuff of playwrights, not usually.

On the other hand, he does believe that Petrus knew something was in the offing; he does believe Petrus could have warned Lucy. That is why he will not let go of the subject. That is why he continues to nag Petrus.

Petrus has emptied the mud-covered storage dam, exposing its concrete innards covered in muck and algae. The stuff of life, resilient, slippery. Cleaning it is a hard, unpleasant job. A massacre like any other, life in all its resplendent glory : genocide. Holocaust. The killing of one kind to make room for another kind. Lava tearing old forest so that invasive, psychotic weeds may grow ; the wheat that puts all its sap's worth into making an oversized, overfattened grain, leaving naught behind but a sad husk of what never really was a plant. Broadleaf weeds finding their way in, one by one, using their parasols built in to shade the ground and kill the earlier inhabitants. Bushes, then trees, if the land will support it, pushing out each other until it ends with birch, or beech, or pine, or whatever holds the highest rank. And then disaster, and then the wheel again. The facts of life.

Nevertheless, he offers to help. With his feet crammed into Lucy's rubber boots, he climbs into the dam, stepping carefully on the slick bottom. For a while he and Petrus work in concert, scraping, scrubbing, shovelling out the mud. Then he breaks off.
'Do you know, Petrus,' he says, belabouring breath 'I find it hard to believe the men who came here were strangers. I find it hard to believe they arrived out of nowhere, and did what they did, and disappeared afterwards like ghosts. And I find it hard to believe that the reason they picked on us was simply that we were the first white folk they met that day. What do you think? Am I wrong?'

Petrus smokes a pipe, an old-fashioned pipe with a hooked stem and a little silver cap over the bowl. Now he straightens up, takes the pipe from the pocket of his overalls, opens the cap, tamps down the tobacco in the bowl, sucks at the pipe unlit. He stares reflectively over the dam wall, over the hills, over open country. His expression is perfectly tranquil.
'The police must find them,' he says at last. 'The police must find them and put them in jail. That is the job of the police.'
'But the police are not going to find them without help. Those men knew about the forestry station. I am convinced they knew about Lucy. How could they have known if they were complete strangers to the district?'

Petrus chooses not to take the question for a question. He puts the pipe away in his pocket, exchanges spade for broom.
'It was not simply theft, Petrus,' he persists. 'They did not come just to steal. They did not come just to do this to me.' He touches the bandages, touches the eye-shield. 'They came to do something else as well. You know what I mean, or if you don't know you can surely guess. After they did what they did, you cannot expect Lucy calmly to go on with her life as before. I am Lucy's father. I want those men to be caught and brought before the law and punished. Am I wrong? Am I wrong to want justice?'
He does not care how he gets the words out of Petrus now, he just wants to hear them.

'You are not wrong to want justice.'
A flurry of anger runs through him, strong enough to take him by surprise. He picks up his spade and strikes whole strips of mud and weed from the dam-bottom, flinging them over his shoulder, over the wall, further than any prior went. Ununderstood stotting behaviour, the remnants of a man, old now but not yet snuffed out, still not snuffed out if deeply buried inside an elderly father, inside an elderly fool. A vein of him that never had a chance to see sunlight while he was away, busy with his "life of the mind", nevertheless of him, a thing that's his, faithful mechanism trying its best. Trying its best to serve him, trying its best to meet the needs of that other thing of him, the daugther that he never had because he had to be away, separated from his body, from himself. The man still left inside will show Petrus strength, brute, directly comprehensible, universally significant muscular strength, and in this way make the argument in the correct, sensible form for the novel institutions and procedures that replaced the ancient, reasonable ones.

You are whipping yoursef into a rage, he admonishes himself: Stop it! Yet at this moment he would like to take Petrus by the throat. If it had been your wife instead of my daughter, he would like to say to Petrus, you would not be tapping your pipe and weighing your words quite so judiciously. Violation: that is the word he would like to force out of Petrus. Yes, it was a violation, he would like to hear Petrus say; yes, it was an outrage. In silence, side by side, he and Petrus finish off the job. Was it an outrage ? When does one outrage end and another outrage begin ?

This is how his days are spent on the farm. He helps Petrus clean up the irrigation system. He keeps the garden from going to ruin. He packs produce for the market. He helps Bev Shaw at the clinic. He sweeps the floors, cooks the meals, does all the things that Lucy no longer does. He is busy from dawn to dusk. His eye is healing surprisingly fast: after a mere week he is able to use it again. The burns are taking longer. He retains the skullcap and the bandage over his ear. The ear, uncovered, looks like a naked pink mollusc: he does not know when he will be bold enough to expose it to the gaze of others. A strange, feminine shyness that surprises but does not concern him.

He buys a hat to keep off the sun, and, to a degree, to hide his face. He is trying to get used to looking odd, worse than odd, repulsive - one of those sorry creatures whom children gawk at in the street. 'Why does that man look so funny?' they ask their mothers, and have to be hushed. He goes to the shops in Salem as seldom as he can, to Grahamstown only on Saturdays. All at once he has become a recluse, a country recluse. The end of roving. Though the heart be still as loving and the moon be still as bright. Who would have thought it would come to an end so soon and so suddenly: the roving, the loving! Outside of the castrum defended by three thousand lightning bolts drawn among the four thousand corners of a thousand shields held by a thousand actual men, out in the open fields where wild beasts and wild barbarians roam all dressed in the same wolven pelts his erotic faculty shrivels into a whisp of nothingness. Roving ? Loving ? There's work to do.

He has no reason to believe their misfortunes have made it on to the gossip circuit in Cape Town. Nevertheless, he wants to be sure that Rosalind does not hear the story in some garbled form. Twice he tries to call her, without success. The third time he telephones the travel agency where she works. Rosalind is in Madagascar, he is told, scouting; he is given the fax number of a hotel in Antananarivo. He composes a dispatch: 'Lucy and I have had some bad luck. My car was stolen, and there was a scuffle too, in which I took a bit of a knock. Nothing serious - we're both fine, though shaken. Thought I'd let you now in case of rumours. Trust you are having a good time.' He gives the page to Lucy to approve, then to Bev Shaw to send off to Rosalind in darkest Africa.

If Lucy is improving, it is not all that evident. She stays up all night, claiming she cannot sleep; then in the afternoons he finds her asleep on the sofa, her thumb in her mouth like a child's. She has lost interest in food: he is the one who has to tempt her to eat, cooking unfamiliar dishes because she refuses to touch meat. This is not what he came for - to be stuck in the back of beyond, warding off demons, nursing his daughter, attending to a dying enterprise. If he came for anything, it was to gather himself, gather his forces. Yet here he is losing himself day by day.

The demons do not pass him by. He has nightmares of his own in which he wallows in a bed of blood, or, panting, shouting soundlessly, runs from the man with the face like a hawk, like a Benin mask, like Thoth. One night, half sleepwalking, half demented, he strips his own bed, even turns the mattress over, looking for stains.

There is still the Byron project. Of the books he brought from Cape Town, only two volumes of the letters are left - the rest were in the trunk of the stolen car. The public library in Grahamstown can offer nothing but selections from the poems. But does he need to go on reading? What more does he need to know of how Byron and his acquaintance passed their time in old Ravenna? Can he not, by now, invent a Byron who is true to Byron, and a Teresa too?

He has, if the truth be told, been putting it off for months: the moment when he must face the blank page, strike the first note, see what he is worth. Snatches are already imprinted on his mind of the lovers in duet, the vocal lines, soprano and tenor, coiling wordlessly around and past each other like serpents. Melody without climax; the whisper of reptile scales on marble staircases; and, throbbing in the background, the baritone of the humiliated husband. Will this be where the dark trio are at last brought to life: not in Cape Town but in old Kaffraria?

The two young sheep are tethered all day beside the stable on a bare patch of ground. Their bleating, steady and monotonous, has begun to annoy him. He strolls over to Petrus, who has his bicycle upside down and is working on it. 'Those sheep,' he says - 'don't you think we could tie them where they can graze?'
'They are for the party,' says Petrus. 'On Saturday I will slaughter them for the party. You and Lucy must come.' He wipes his hands clean. 'I invite you and Lucy to the party.'
'On Saturday?'
'Yes, I am giving a party on Saturday. A big party.'
'Thank you. But even if the sheep are for the party, don't you think they could graze?'

An hour later the sheep are still tethered, still bleating dolefully. Petrus is nowhere to be seen. Exasperated, he unties them and tugs them over to the damside, where there is abundant grass. The sheep drink at length, then leisurely begin to graze. They are black-faced Persians, alike in size, in markings, even in their movements. Twins, in all likelihood, destined since birth for the butcher's knife. Well, nothing remarkable in that. When did a sheep last die of old age? Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them, their flesh to be eaten, their bones to be crushed and made into glue. Nothing escapes, except perhaps the gall bladder, which no one will eat. Descartes should have thought of that. The soul, suspended in the dark, bitter gall, hiding.

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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