Three men are coming toward them on the path, or two men and a boy. They are walking fast, with countrymen's long strides. The dog at Lucy's side slows down, bristles.
'Should we be nervous?' he murmurs.
'I don't know.'
She shortens the Dobermanns' leashes. The men are upon them. A nod, a greeting, and they have passed.
'Who are they?' he asks.
'Farmhands, by the looks of them.'
They reach the plantation boundary and turn back. The strangers are out of sight. As they near the house they hear the caged dogs in an uproar. Lucy quickens her pace. The three are there, waiting for them. The two men stand at a remove while the boy, beside the cages, hisses at the dogs and makes sudden, threatening gestures. The dogs, in a rage, bark and snap. The dog at Lucy's side tries to tug loose. Even the old bulldog bitch, whom he seems to have adopted as his own, is growling softly.
'Petrus!' calls Lucy. But there is no sign of Petrus. 'Get away from the dogs!' she shouts. The boy saunters off and rejoins his companions. He has a flat, expressionless face and piggish eyes; he wears a flowered shirt, baggy trousers, a little yellow sunhat. His companions are both in overalls. The taller of them is handsome, strikingly handsome, with a high forehead, sculpted cheekbones, wide, flaring nostrils. At Lucy's approach the dogs calm down. She opens the third cage and releases the two Dobermanns into it. A brave gesture, he thinks to himself; but is it wise?
To the men she says: 'What do you want?'
The young one speaks. 'We must telephone.'
'Why must you telephone?'
'His sister' - he gestures vaguely behind him - 'is having an accident.'
'Yes, very bad.'
'What kind of accident?'
'His sister is having a baby?'
'Where are you from?'
He and Lucy exchange glances. Erasmuskraal, inside the forestry concession, is a hamlet with no electricity, no telephone. The story makes sense.
'Why didn't you phone from the forestry station?'
'Is no one there.'
'Stay out here,' Lucy murmurs to him; and then, to the boy: 'Who is it who wants to telephone?'
He indicates the tall, handsome man.
'Come in,' she says. She unlocks the back door and enters. The tall man follows. After a moment the second man pushes past him and enters the house too.
Something is wrong, he knows at once. 'Lucy, come out here!' he calls, unsure for the moment whether to follow or wait where he can keep an eye on the boy. From the house there is silence. 'Lucy!' he calls again, and is about to go in when the door-latch clicks shut. A door latch, enough to keep him out.
'Petrus!' he shouts as loudly as he can.
The boy turns and sprints, heading for the front door. He lets go the bulldog's leash. 'Get him!' he shouts. The dog trots heavily after the boy. In front of the house he catches up with them. The boy has picked up a bean-stake and is using it to keep the dog at bay. 'Shu ... shu ... shu!' he pants, thrusting with the stick. Growling softly, the dog circles left and right. Abandoning them, he rushes back to the kitchen door. The bottom leaf is not bolted: a few heavy kicks and it swings open. On all fours he creeps into the kitchen. A blow catches him on the crown of the head. He has time to think, If I am still conscious then I am all right, before his limbs turn to water and he crumples.
He is aware of being dragged across the kitchen floor. Then he blacks out. He is lying face down on cold tiles. He tries to stand up but his legs are somehow blocked from moving. He closes his eyes again. He is in the lavatory, the lavatory of Lucy's house. Dizzily he gets to his feet. The door is locked, the key is gone. He sits down on the toilet seat and tries to recover. The house is still; the dogs are barking, but more in duty, it seems, than in frenzy.
'Lucy!' he croaks, and then, louder: 'Lucy!'
He tries to kick at the door, but he is not himself, and the space too cramped anyway, the door too old and solid. They used to make solid things, back in the day, even a lavatory door. So it has come, the day of testing. Without warning, without fanfare, it is here, and he is in the middle of it. In his chest his heart hammers so hard that it too, in its dull way, must know. How will they stand up to the testing, he and his heart?
His child is in the hands of strangers, the unkind hands of unknown men. In a minute, in an hour, it will be too late; whatever is happening to her will be set in stone, will belong to the past. But now it is not too late. Now he must do something. Though he strains to hear, he can make out no sound from the house. Yet if his child were calling, however mutely, surely he would hear!
He batters the door. 'Lucy!' he shouts. 'Lucy! Speak to me!'
The door opens, suddenly, unexpectedly, knocking him off balance. Before him stands the second man, the shorter one, holding an
empty one-litre bottle by the neck. 'Keys,' says the man.
He eyes the short man, steadily. His face is placid, without trace of anger. It is merely a job he is doing: getting someone to hand over an article. If it entails hitting him with a bottle, he will hit him, hit him as many times as is necessary, if necessary break the bottle too.
The man gives him a push. He stumbles back, sits down heavily. The man raises the bottle.
'Take them,' he says. 'Take everything. Just leave my daughter alone.'
Without a word, the other takes the keys, then locks him in again.
He shivers. A dangerous trio. Why did he not recognise it in time? But they are not harming him, not yet anyway. Is it possible that what the house has to offer will be enough for them? Is it possible they will leave Lucy unharmed too? From behind the house comes the sound of voices. The barking of the dogs grows louder again, more excited. He stands on the toilet seat and peers through the bars of the window.
Carrying Lucy's rifle and a bulging garbage bag, the second man is just disappearing around the corner of the house. A car door slams. He recognizes the sound: his car. The man reappears empty-handed. For a moment the two of them look straight into each other's eyes. 'Hai!' says the man, and smiles grimly, and calls out some words. There is a burst of laughter. A moment later the boy joins him, and they stand beneath the window, inspecting their prisoner, discussing his fate.
He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron. Mission work: what has it left behind, that huge enterprise of upliftment? Nothing that he can see.
Now the tall man appears from around the front, carrying the rifle. With practised ease he brings a cartridge up into the breech, thrusts the muzzle into the dogs' cage. The biggest of the German Shepherds, slavering with rage, snaps at it. There is a heavy report; blood and brains splatter the cage. For a moment the barking ceases. The man fires twice more. One dog, shot through the chest, dies at once; another, with a gaping throat-wound, sits down heavily, flattens its ears, following with weary gaze the movements of this being who does not even bother to administer a coup de grâce. Apparently they do not like animals, in the darkest of Africa. Would the dead dog have preferred being beaten, he wonders ? How about the wounded one. He inspects the dog, a stone's throw away. It doesn't look like it'd prefer anything, not anymore.
Death, in the depths of Africa. Is it something so fearsome, after all ? A moment, a brief thunderous moment. Ah, but the death of another. So very different from one's own. So very much less real, hence all the pretense. Why do people cry at funerals ? He knows now why they cry at their parents'. He knows why, because it just occured to him.
A hush falls. The remaining three dogs, with nowhere to hide, retreat to the back of their pen, milling about, whining softly. Taking his time between shots, the man picks them off. Footfalls along the passage, and the door to the toilet swings open again. The second man stands before him; behind him he glimpses the boy in the flowered shirt, eating from a tub of ice-cream. He tries to
shoulder his way out, gets past the man, then falls heavily. Some kind of trip: they must practise it in soccer.
As he lies sprawled he is splashed from head to foot with liquid. His eyes burn, he tries to wipe them. He recognizes the smell: methylated spirits. Struggling to get up, he is pushed back into the lavatory. The scrape of a match, and at once he is bathed in cool blue flame. So he was wrong! He and his daughter are not being let off lightly after all! He can burn, he can die; and if
he can die, then so can Lucy, above all Lucy!
He strikes at his face like a madman; his hair crackles as it catches alight; he throws himself about, hurling out shapeless bellows that have no words behind them, only fear. He tries to stand up and is forced down again. For a moment his vision clears and he sees, inches from his face, blue overalls and a shoe. The toe of the shoe curls upward; there are blades of grass sticking out from the tread.
A flame dances soundlessly on the back of his hand. He struggles to his knees and plunges the hand into the toilet bowl. Behind him the door closes and the key turns. He hangs over the toilet bowl, splashing water over his face, dousing his head. There is a nasty smell of singed hair. He stands up, beats out the last of the flames on his clothes. With wads of wet paper he bathes his face. His eyes are stinging, one eyelid is already closing shut. He runs a hand over his head and his fingertips come away black with soot. Save for a patch over one ear, he seems to have no hair; his whole scalp is tender. Everything is tender, everything is burned. Burned, burnt. 'Lucy!' he shouts. 'Are you here?' A vision comes to him of Lucy struggling with the two in the blue overalls, struggling against them. He writhes, trying to blank it out.
He hears his car start, and the crunch of tyres on gravel. Is it over? Are they, unbelievably, going? 'Lucy!' he shouts, over and over, till he can hear an edge of madness in his voice. At last, blessedly, the key turns in the lock. By the time he has the door open, Lucy has turned her back on him. She is wearing a bathrobe, her feet are bare, her hair wet. He trails after her through the kitchen, where the refrigerator stands open and food lies scattered all over the floor. She stands at the back door taking in the carnage of the dog-pens. 'My darlings, my darlings!' he hears her murmur.
She opens the first cage and enters. The dog with the throat-wound is somehow still breathing. She bends over it, speaks to it. Faintly it wags its tail.
'Lucy!' he calls again, and now for the first time she turns her gaze on him. A frown appears on her face. 'What on earth did they do to you?' she says.
'My dearest child!' he says. He follows her into the cage and tries to take her in his arms. Gently, decisively, she wriggles loose. The living-room is in a mess, so is his own room. Things have been taken: his jacket, his good shoes, and that is only the beginning of it.
He looks at himself in a mirror. Brown ash, all that is left of his hair, coats his scalp and forehead. Underneath it the scalp is an angry pink. He touches the skin: it is painful and beginning to ooze. One eyelid is swelling shut; his eyebrows are gone, his eyelashes too. He goes to the bathroom, but the door is closed. 'Don't come in,' says Lucy's voice.
'Are you all right? Are you hurt?'
Stupid questions; she does not reply.
He tries to wash off the ash under the kitchen tap, pouring glass after glass of water over his head. Water trickles down his back; he begins to shiver with cold. It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy.
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too few things, much too few for all the countless, eager hands. Listless, unskilled hands that don't know how to make anything anyone'd want. The little there is made by the few who can make things or more often shipped in from outside must go into circulation. Everyone wants to be happy, even if just for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad, or worse than mad. One could start picking off the monkeys one by one, rifle in hand, like dogs in a cage. Genocide, what an ugly word.
Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them. Servants of Eros, all of them, of the strange, deformed Eros of Xhosa. An Eros of things more than of ideas, somehow. Of ideas as things, a flat aesthetic. Heavy hips and absent waistlines ; shoes and cigarettes. Lucy has come up behind him. She is wearing slacks and a raincoat now; her hair is combed back, her face clean and entirely blank. He looks into her eyes. 'My dearest, dearest...' he says, and chokes on a
sudden surge of tears.
She does not stir a finger to soothe him. 'Your head looks terrible,' she remarks. 'There's baby-oil in the bathroom cabinet. Put some on. Is your car gone?'
'Yes. I think they went off in the Port Elizabeth direction. I must telephone the police.'
'You can't. The telephone is smashed.'
She leaves him. He sits on the bed and waits. Though he has wrapped a blanket around himself, he continues to shiver. One of his wrists is swollen and throbbing with pain. He cannot recollect how he hurt it. It is already getting dark. The whole afternoon seems to have passed in a flash. A flash, he thinks to himself, that's how the expression goes. What ugly literalism.