Disgrace - Petrus has invited us

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

'Petrus has invited us to a party,' he tells Lucy. 'Why is he throwing a party?'
'Because of the transfer, probably. The land goes to him officially on the first of next month. It's a big day for him.'
'He is going to slaughter the two sheep. I wouldn't have thought two sheep would go very far.'
'Petrus is a pennypincher. In the old days it would have been an ox.'
'I'm not sure I like the way he does things - bringing the slaughter-beasts home to acquaint them with the people who are going to eat them.'
'What would you prefer? That the slaughtering be done in an abattoir, so that you needn't think about it?'
'Yes.'
'Wake up, David. This is the country. This is Africa.'
'Are we going ?'
'I must go.'
'Then I will come with you.'
'Ok.'

There is a snappishness to Lucy nowadays that he sees no justification for. His usual response is to withdraw into silence. There are spells when the two of them are like strangers in the same house. He tells himself that he must be patient, that Lucy is still living in the shadow of the attack, that time needs to pass before she will be herself. But what if he is wrong? What if, after an attack like that, one is never oneself again? What if an attack like that turns one into a darker person altogether?

There is an even more sinister explanation for Lucy's moodiness, one that he cannot put from his mind.
'Lucy,' he asks the same day, out of the blue, 'you aren't hiding something from me, are you? You didn't pick up something from those men?'
She is sitting on the sofa in pyjamas and dressing-gown, playing with the cat. It is past noon. The cat is young, alert, skittish. Lucy dangles the belt of the gown before it. The cat slaps at the belt, quick, light paw-blows, one-two-three-four.

'Men?' she says. 'Which men?' She flicks the belt to one side; the cat dives after it.
Which men? His heart stops. Has she gone mad? Is she refusing to remember? But, it would appear, she is only teasing him. 'David, I am not a child anymore. I have seen a doctor, I have had tests, I have done everything one can reasonably do. Now I can only wait.'
'I see. And how long will that take?'
She shrugs. 'Science has not yet put a limit on how long one has to wait. For ever, maybe.'

The cat makes a quick pounce at the belt, but the game is over now. He sits down beside his daughter; the cat jumps off the sofa, stalks away. He takes her hand. Now that he is close to her, a faint smell of staleness, unwashedness, reaches him. 'At least it won't be for ever, my dearest,' he says. 'At least you will be spared that.'

The sheep spend the rest of the day near the dam where he has tethered them. The next morning they are back on the barren patch beside the stable. Presumably they have until Saturday morning, two days. It seems a miserable way to spend the last two days of one's life. Country ways - that is what Lucy calls this kind of thing. He has other words: indifference, or hardheartedness. If the country can pass judgment on the city, then the city can pass judgment on the country, too, and it will probably count for just as much.

The thought of buying the two blackfaced sheep from Petrus has occured to him. It occurs periodically. But what would such a feat accomplish, in the end? Petrus will only use the money to buy new slaughter-animals, and pocket the difference. Money, a strange source of power, unreliable, ineffectual. Petrus can use it to buy sheep and eat them ; but David can not use it to buy Petrus' sheep so Petrus doesn't eat sheep. And what will he do with the two sheep anyway, once he has bought them out of the bonds of slavery? Set them free on the public road? Pen them up in the dog-cages and feed them hay? Teach them to read and write, send them to church ? Give them land somewhere, a land to call their own at the other end of the continent on which their fore-ewes and fore-bucks have lived ten thousand years and more ? Then what besides, sell them rockets and fighter airplanes ? A bond seems to have come into existence between himself and the two Persians, he does not know how. The bond is not one of affection. It is not even a bond with these two in particular, whom he could not pick out from a mob in a field. Nevertheless, suddenly and without reason, their lot has become important to him.

He stands before them, under the sun, waiting for the buzz in his mind to settle, waiting for a sign. There is a fly trying to creep into the ear of one of them. The ear twitches. The fly takes off; circles, returns, settles. The ear twitches again. He takes a step forward. The sheep backs away uneasily to the limit of its chain. He remembers Bev Shaw nuzzling the old billy-goat with the ravaged testicles, stroking him, comforting him, entering into his life. How does she get it right, this communion with the animals? Some trick he does not have. Some old parlor trick of a tramp down on his luck. One has to be a certain kind of person, perhaps, with fewer complications. One has to speak in another kind of voice, to another kind of ear. The sun beats on his face in all its springtime radiance. Do I have to change ? he wonders. Do I have to become like Bev Shaw?

He speaks to Lucy. 'I have been thinking about this party of Petrus'. On the whole, I would prefer not to go. Is that possible without being rude?'
'Anything to do with his slaughter-sheep?'
'Yes. No. I haven't changed my ideas, if that is what you mean. I still don't believe that animals have properly individual lives. Which among them get to live, which get to die, is not, as far as I am concerned, worth agonizing over. Nevertheless...' 'Nevertheless?'
'Nevertheless, in this case I am disturbed. I can't say why.'
'Well, Petrus and his guests are certainly not going to give up their mutton chops out of deference to you and your sensibilities.'
'I'm sure. Nevertheless, I would just prefer not to be one of the party, not this time. I'm sorry. I never imagined I would end up talking in this way.'
'God moves in mysterious ways, Dad.'
'Don't mock me.'

Saturday is looming, market day. 'Should we run the stall?' he asks Lucy. She shrugs. 'You decide,' she returns. He does not run the stall. She does not question his decision ; if anything she seems relieved. Preparations for Petrus' festivities begin at noon on Saturday with the arrival of a band of women half a dozen strong, not one under three feet thick, decked in what looks to him like churchgoing finery. Behind the stable they get a fire going. Soon there comes on the wind the stench of boiling offal, from which he infers that the deed has been done, the double deed, that it is all over.

Will he mourn? Is it proper to mourn the death of beings who do not practise mourning among themselves? Looking into his heart, he can find only a vague sadness. Too close, he thinks: we live too close to Petrus. It is like sharing a house with strangers, sharing noises, sharing smells. He knocks at Lucy's door. 'Do you want to go for a walk?' he asks.
'Thanks, but no. Take Katy.'
He takes the bulldog, but she is so slow and sulky that he grows irritated, chases her back to the farm, and sets off alone on an eight-kilometre loop, walking fast, trying to tire himself out. At five o'clock the guests start arriving, by car, by overflowing tiny trucklets, or on foot. He watches from behind the kitchen curtain. Most are of their host's generation, staid, solid. There is one old woman over whom a particular fuss is made: wearing his blue suit and a garish pink shirt, Petrus comes all the way down the path to welcome her.

It is dark before the younger folk make an appearance. On the breeze comes a murmur of talk, laughter and music, music that he associates with the Johannesburg of his own youth. Quite tolerable, he thinks to himself- quite jolly, even.
'It's time,' says Lucy. 'Are you coming after all?'
Unusually, she is wearing a knee-length dress and high heels, with a necklace of painted wooden beads and matching earrings. He is not sure he likes the effect.
'All right, I'll come. I'm ready.'
'Haven't you got a suit here?'
'No.'
'Then at least put on a tie.'
'I thought we were in the country.'
'All the more reason to dress up. This is a big day in Petrus' life.'
She carries a tiny flashlight. They walk up the track to Petrus' house, father and daughter arm in arm, she lighting the way, he bearing their offering. At the open door they pause, smiling. Petrus is nowhere to be seen, but a little girl in a party dress comes
up and leads them in. The old stable has no ceiling and no proper floor, but at least it is spacious and at least it has electricity. Shaded lamps and pictures on the walls (Van Gogh's sunflowers, a Tretchikoff lady in blue, Jane Fonda in her Barbarella outfit, Doctor Khumaloi scoring a goal) soften the bleakness.

They are the only whites. There is dancing going on, to the old-fashioned African jazz he had heard. Curious glances are cast at the two of them, or perhaps only at his skullcap. Lucy knows some of the women. She commences introductions. Then Petrus appears at their side. He does not play the eager host, does not offer them a drink, but does say, 'No more dogs. I am not any more the dog-man,' which Lucy chooses to accept in mirth ; so all, it appears, is well. 'We have brought you something,' says Lucy; 'but perhaps we should give it to your wife. It is for the house.'

From the kitchen area, if that is what they are to call it, Petrus summons his wife. It is the first time he has seen her from close by. She is young - younger than Lucy - pleasant-faced rather than pretty, shy, clearly pregnant. She takes Lucy's hand but does not take his, nor does she meet his eyes. Lucy speaks a few words in Xhosa and presents her with the package. There are by now half a dozen onlookers around them. 'She must unwrap it,' says Petrus.
'Yes, you must unwrap it,' says Lucy.
Carefully, at pains not to tear the festive paper with its mandolins and sprigs of laurel, the young wife opens the package. It is a cloth in a rather attractive Ashanti design. 'Thank you,' she whispers in English.
'It's a bedspread,' Lucy explains to Petrus.

'Very good,' says Petrus; and then, to Lucy: 'Very good.'
A distasteful word, it seems to him, double-edged, souring the moment. Yet can Petrus be blamed? The language he draws on with such aplomb is, if he only knew it, tired, cracked, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them. What is to be done? Nothing that he, the one-time teacher of communications, can see. Nothing short of starting all over again with the ABC. By the time the big words come back reconstructed, purified, fit to be trusted once more, he will be long dead.

He shivers, as if a goose has trodden on his grave.
'The baby - when are you expecting the baby?' he asks Petrus' wife.
She looks at him uncomprehendingly.
'In November,' Petrus intervenes. 'The baby is coming in November. He will be ngeekatsi. Like you say, Scorpion.'
'He ? What have you got against girls?'
'We are praying for a boy,' says Petrus. 'Always it is best if the first one is a boy. Then he can show his sisters - show them how to behave. Yes.' He pauses. 'A girl is very expensive.' He rubs thumb and forefinger together. 'Always money, money, money.'
A long time since he last saw that gesture. Used of Jews, in the old days: money-money-money, with the same meaningful cock of the head. But presumably Petrus is innocent of that snippet of African tradition.

'Boys can be expensive too,' he remarks, doing his bit for the conversation.
'You must buy them this, you must buy them that,' continues Petrus, getting into his stride, no longer listening. 'Now, today, the man does not pay for the woman. I pay.' He floats a hand above his wife's head; modestly she drops her eyes. 'I pay. But that is old fashion. Clothes, nice things, it is all the same: pay, pay, pay.' He repeats the finger-rubbing. 'No, a boy is better. Except your daughter. Your daughter is different. Your daughter is as good as a boy. Almost!' He laughs at his sally. 'Hey, Lucy!'
Lucy smiles, but he knows she is embarrassed. 'I'm going to dance,' she murmurs, and moves away.

On the floor she dances by herself in the solipsistic way that now seems to be the mode. Soon she is joined by a young man, tall, loose-limbed, nattily dressed. He dances opposite her, snapping his fingers, flashing her smiles, courting her. Women are beginning to come in from outside, carrying trays of grilled meat. The air is full of appetizing smells. A new contingent of guests floods in, young, noisy, lively, not old fashioned at all. The night segment, the social party is getting into its swing, coming into its own after the arid bloodline politicking of the afternoon. A plate of food finds its way into his hands. He passes it on to Petrus.
'No,' says Petrus - ' is for you. Otherwise we are passing plates all night.'
Petrus and his wife are spending a lot of time with him, making him feel at home. Kind people, he thinks. Country people.

———
  1. This bears some discussion. What would you expect the vocation would be of a man named Theophilus Doctorson Khumalo, nicknamed "Doctor" ? Banjo player ? Bartender ? Corn chucker ? What if I added that he was also known as "16 valve" ? Singer ? Car mechanic ? Butcher ?

    Let us add that he owes the beginning of his soccer career to one Ted Dumitru, a Romanian coach who died this year, who promoted him from juniors, and be done with it.

    Africa, you see. Que voulez-vous, ils sont au-dela, aux portes de la folie, ou tout est pris a la manie. []

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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