Away From the Dead

by Karen Jennings

 

Rumours spread among the workers that the farm had been sold. The old man, dead two weeks previously, had left the farm to his children; children who lived in cities overseas; who had no interest in farming. In that respect, the workers comforted each other, the sale of the farm was a good thing. For what good could have come from it being run by those who did not know how? Yet, behind the words of reassurance, they worried privately. Would they keep their current wages? How much would change? And most importantly, would the new owners keep them all on?

Before long the answer came. None would remain. Farming was an expensive and unreliable business. The new owners, property developers, explained in letters addressed to each individual worker that money could no longer be made from farming. Climate change, the expense of irrigation, regulations with regard to pesticides, all of these made farming too much of a liability. Money, the developers asserted, came from having something people wanted to buy. Therefore they had chosen to build luxury holiday chalets, import game for hunting, and build a nine-hole golf course, marketed at an overseas clientele. This, of course, meant that there would no longer be any need for farm workers. They therefore respectfully included severance packages (of a more than compensatory amount), and requested the workers to leave before the end of the month, otherwise legal action would be taken.

Standing outside their small cottages, showing their letters to one another, they read the same words over and over. They did not speak anymore. They did not cry. Instead they turned and looked at their cottages, their small gardens and washing lines. Behind their homes, in the distance, they saw the cemetery; grey gravestones neatly spaced, surrounded by a low wall of white. A marker of those they had lost; the old, the young, the stillborn; it had formed the background to their lives. What would happen, they wondered, to the dead? Who would tend to them once the living had left?

Isaac Witbooi stood to one side, away from the others. His grief was his own. His grandparents, parents, siblings, wife and children had all been buried in that earth, leaving him with no one. He carried silently the loneliness of years. Aging now, perhaps sixty, perhaps more, he had come to look forward with certainty to the day he would join his family in the cemetery.  Robbed of that possibility, Isaac Witbooi looked to the future as an empty plain without end. There was no horizon; only stretching out, flat and dim, the years to come.

In the week that followed, Isaac went to neighbouring farms, asking for jobs from people he had known for years. He did not beg or plead, nor did he remind them of the past when he had given advice or the sweat of his brow in times of need. Instead, he anticipated their words, knowing full well what they would say:

“You were always a good worker, but you’re an old man now. What can we give you to do?”

As the end of the month neared, Isaac packed his belongings into a brown cardboard suitcase which had belonged to his wife. Over the years of disuse its fastening had rusted so that he had to tie a length of rope around it in order to keep it closed. The few items inside – clothes, razor, bible, mug, plates and cutlery – rattled against each other as he lifted it. Glancing around the small cottage to see if he had everything, Isaac then stepped outside, and closed the door behind him, before removing the key from the lock and pushing it under the door as they had been asked to do.

Among the last to leave, Isaac said goodbye to nobody. Those who remained stayed only out of a reckless hope that the end of the month would never come, or if it did that something miraculous would happen to prevent their eviction. Unwilling to see the desperate looks on their faces, Isaac said nothing, feeling only their eyes on him from behind the windows of their cottages as he passed by. He felt no remorse for parting from these people he had known since their births, for it was, after all, not them that he was abandoning. Instead it was the cemetery that he was leaving, and with it all the years of his life, and those of his parents’ and his grandparents’ lives too. They were years he could not put a number to, nothing exact, because each year held so much of every other. Whether a hundred, or whether less or more, those years made up his past, and with every step he took, the suitcase banging against his thigh, it was as though a moment of that past was beaten out of him.

All morning he walked, passing families he recognized who had made camp on the side of the road.

“Sit, have a rest, Oupa,” they greeted him, sipping tea boiled over small fires.

Isaac shook his head, pressed on.

“What’s the rush?” they called after him. “There’s no work that way! You’re walking to nothing!”

By the time he approached his destination; a large service station with a restaurant and café; his ears were ringing with fatigue. He felt dizzy – from the walk, from thirst, from age, and from the weight of the suitcase, heavy and awkward at his side. Dizziness settled in his throat as he approached the intersection beside the service station. Already the roadside was crowded with workers who had left the farm a day, a week, before. They greeted him with wariness, silently making a space for him beside them. As he put down his suitcase, sitting upon it like a chair, they asked whom he had seen, what news he had. But Isaac had nothing to share, and soon they tired of him, returning to standing with their hands in their pockets, frowning up and down the intersection, waiting for something that wouldn’t come.

From where he sat, Isaac looked back towards the large area taken up by the service station. Among the uniform-clad petrol attendants he recognized Randall, a young man he had taken under his wing a few years previously, teaching him all he knew about farming and maintenance of vines. Further away, near the doorway to the toilets, Isaac could make out Randall’s wife and sister carrying mops and buckets. They, too, were in the service station’s uniform; bright colours covering them from head to toe. Keeping their faces low, their eyes on the ground, neither Randall nor the women allowed themselves to look up towards where their friends and family sat beside the road, their belongings scattered around them. Even from a distance, Isaac understood by their expressions the guilt they felt for their fortune. He turned around, facing the road so that his shame need not become theirs.

For five days Isaac remained, as men younger than himself were picked up on the backs of farm bakkies, either for jobs or simply hitching rides to anywhere else. By the afternoon of the third day he no longer joined the other men as they crowded around the windows of stopping cars, murmuring qualifications. The drivers took in his old and lined face, his trembling hands and watery eyes and shook their heads. They had no work for him. He should go home, they said. He was too old to be hired.  It was time for him to rest, to have his children take care of him. Isaac stepped back from the rolled-down car windows, allowing others to take his place in the crowd.

On the sixth day Isaac woke alone in the damp grass beside the road. The last few men and women had left the previous afternoon, wandering off in the direction of other towns or back towards the farm, hoping to get work from the developers. He picked up his suitcase, and without eating, without wiping the sleep from his eyes, Isaac began to walk. For that whole day, and the day to follow, Isaac was still familiar with his surroundings. Many times he had passed these lands during windy rides on the back of the old farmer’s bakkie. Going slower now, Isaac could pay more attention to the view – the length of the grass beside the road, items of litter, the mountains both nearby and distant. Yet the stillness of the air surprised him, its closeness around him, and he had to pause from time to time to sit on his suitcase and rest. What was more, slowed down by traveling on foot, Isaac now passed the carcasses of animals crushed by cars and was able to identify them. Innards, feathers and fur separated out from what had been a mass, into dreadful detail. What had been nameless was now recognizable as crow, porcupine, snake.

He ate when he could, using the severance money sparingly. But days often passed between roadside cafes and he was driven to scavenge. For two days he ate nothing but fallen oranges, picked up through a hole in an orchard fence. His stomach cramped in pain, his body began to leak, so that he was forced for a day and a night to lie in a ditch, wet with sweat and shit, unable to move.

With time, Isaac became aware of an increase in traffic, of less vegetation, of the steep terrain flattening out. The road kill altered too. Dogs now, and cats, lay bloating in the sun. He stepped around them, careful not to disturb the flies. Beside the body of a medium-sized dog, its hind legs crooked and bleeding, he paused. It was still breathing; panting heavily. There was nothing he could give it; he had no water, nothing for the pain. Isaac bent down to pat it on the head and it twitched its tail limply in response. When it began to whine he quickly continued on his way.

In the distance nothing was clear. There was only a shadow, dark, spreading out over the flatlands, brown and dreadful.  Soon people began to appear, laden as he was, with bags, with firewood, buckets of water on their heads. They passed him, moving away from the road into a thick island of shacks. Children played nearby, jumping over a burning tyre, splashing in a puddle of sewerage water from which goats were drinking. Isaac stopped. He felt tired now. Very tired. He sat down on the suitcase and put his head in his hands. When night fell, Isaac stayed where he was. Above him, the sky held no stars. There was only the darkness and the sounds of cars, of gunshots, screaming, laughing.

He woke in the morning to a sky quivering and pink. A woman was passing nearby carrying water, and he called to her softly.

“Tatamkhulu, are you lost?”  She asked as he drank from the container with his hands.

He did not answer.

“Tatamkhulu, you can’t sleep here on the side of the road. It’s dangerous.”

“There?” he asked, pointing at the shacks.

“Yes, you can build a home there. If you wait long enough, maybe ten years, then maybe you will get a proper house from the government.”

“And the dead?” he asked. “Where do you bury the dead?”

She shook her head, “Not here. We take them home. We bury them back where they came from.”

“And if there is no one to take them back? No place to go back to?”

“The government,” she said. “They take them away. I don’t know. Maybe they burn them. Maybe they bury them. I don’t know. We take our people back so I don’t know.”

Isaac thanked her for the water and got up, lifting his suitcase.

“You must go to your family, Tatamkhulu,” the woman said. “You mustn’t stay here.”

Isaac nodded. He would not stay here. Not in a place so foreign, not a place which held nothing in which he could recognize himself. He did not know where he would go. Only back, that was what he knew. He would go back.

Several hours later Isaac passed the dog he had seen the previous day. It was still panting beside the road, its mouth dry and heavy. He watched the steady rush of passing cars. No one had stopped for the dog. It would die where it lay. Continuing slowly on his way, surrounded by the roar of traffic, Isaac understood that those who died alone belonged to nobody. Their bones were dust, their names unspoken.

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