Dust Donkey

by Colette Murphy


Joanna removed her suit and ran into the bathroom. She removed the polish from her finger and toenails, and got into the shower. Once she had scrubbed her body clean of perfume and make-up, she got out. Her husband Peter was home too now and began the same ritual. They had promised themselves only one half hour in the office that morning and had gotten to their respective workplaces exceptionally early, ensured all would continue in their absence, and left.

Joanna pulled a tog bag out from the top of her cupboard, tossed it onto the bed and began filling it with casual items and a dozen sarongs. Once dressed she flipped her way to the kitchen, filled a Tupperware with dried nuts and fruit and prepared a few whole-wheat snacks. Then she carefully removed the plastic box marked with a red cross out of the fridge and zipped it up into the cooler-bag.

Peter joined her holding his own tog-bag and she looked up at him.

‘Take me to Timbuktu.’

He said, ‘Hop into our Dust Donkey, baby. Let’s go.’

Timbuktu: their code word for travel, and we do not want to care where.

Silent, they motoring away from the city of Cape Town, and as soon as the sky rises’ fell away from view, Peter turned on some tunes. Nina Simone was the first voice chosen to set their mood in moving away. They relaxed and Peter’s butt slid down in his seat; forward two centimetres or so. The speedometer needle dropped one or two centimetres itself. Joanna leant forward and pulled the pile of colourful sarongs out of her tog-bag. She then unbuckled and turned around in her seat. Propped on her knees, she began decorating the back windows, and the top of the seats with her fabric.

‘There’, she said, ‘that’s better.’ Peter agreed.

One hour later Peter passed her the map. ‘Do your thing baby,’ he said. She took the map, closed her eyes, spun it around a few times and then placed in on her lap. With her eyes still closed, she removed the large hairpin holding her hair together on the top of her head. As her hair fell to her shoulders, she plunged the pin into the map. Piercing the paper, she opened her eyes.

‘Continue north,’ she announced, ‘just veer off a little to the right. We’re going to a town in the Karoo. Peter took the next slip right, off the freeway. The road quickly began to narrow, a dust road visible ahead and they looked at each other and smiled.

‘Here it comes old gal; your layer of comfort,’ Peter said tapping the dash board in front of him as their front wheels hit the dirt.

Their first stop, a couple of hours later, was a lonely gas station, rusted and dusty. Windmills turned slowly in the distance and a wiry chicken scurried past with nothing on its tail. A large African man leant against the small building attached, fanning himself with a thin hubcap. Once they had filled up, hubcap still in hand, the gas-attendant asked them if they knew how to play Frisbee. In no rush, they accepted the proposal and found themselves in a large triangle, tossing the metal hubcap through the air. It was not as easy as an ordinary Frisbee. When they eventually got back into their Dust donkey, their hands were almost as calloused as the hands of the gas-attendant. He waved them good-bye with his hubcap and a large smile.

Travelling north, every mile got hotter than the one before. Scorching wind blew through their windows, like a blow heater directly onto the sides of their faces. Peter glanced at the cooler-bag sitting at Joanne’s feet. Noticing this she bent forward, unzipped, pulled out an ice-pack and shook it. A large piece of ice clunked against the inside walls of the container. They relaxed.

A few metres on they passed a small water reservoir, stopped and reversed. They stripped down to their underwear fast, scattering the interior of their four by four and ran barefoot, holding hands over dry shrub, dodging thorns as best they could. The water was warm but refreshing, a few degrees cooler than the air outside. A layer of slime coated the floor and walls of their swimming pool and the task of getting out became a silly affair.

Afterward they remained in their underwear, sat in the shade of a thorn tree and nibbled on dried fruit and nuts. They heard some giggling and looked up to see two small faces dart back behind the reservoir.

‘Hey’, Peter yelled, ‘come out from behind there.’ Two tiny boys with white teeth and dry dark skin timidly walked around and up to them. They wore faded tee-shirts and shorts with lace-less tackies. They giggled, covering their mouths with small fists, their eyes wide looking at Joanna.

‘Were you spying on us?’ Peter asked in a friendly tone. The two just looked at each other. ‘Where do you come from,’ he asked. They both pointed up to a small square far away on a hill. Nothing lay between the reservoir and the square on the hill; just scrub and sand.

‘Were the two of you here all this time?’ he asked. They nodded and ran back behind the reservoir. ‘Hey, where are you going?’ he yelled again. They heard a scraping sound and the two boys reappeared dragging a short dented metal ladder. They lifted it up and plopped it into the water of the reservoir, hooking it over the edge. All four of them began laughing. Peter got up and shook the taller boys’ hand, ‘next time buddy,’ he said, ‘thanks anyway.’

Joanna gave them the Tupperware of nuts and fruit and they left the two boys looking into the container with quizzical frowns.

Peter drove on, caressing Joanna’s thigh and she dozed off. An hour or so later, he woke her, blowing warm air up and down her wrist. It was cooler and she noticed that they had stopped. Her sleepy eyes saw shadows of leaves mottling the dashboard and Peter’s skin. He got out of the car, flung a sarong over his shoulder and went around to her side of the car. He then opened her door. He lifted her out of the car into his arms and without saying a word, walked away from road, into a thicket of greenery. They had not seen lush green shrub all day. Hidden from the road, he placed her down on her feet. He then took the sarong off his shoulder and spread it over the grass. She lay down and he made love to her. All they heard was the loud song of crickets and a birds call now and again. No giggling boys surprised them and the two found a moment of still.

Back in their Donkey Joanna announced that the ice blocks had melted. Peter picked up the pace.

Not long after their moment of still, when the sun was low, they pulled off the road and drove up to a small building labelled Curio shop slash B&B. A windmill was creaking near by, sunflowers swaying at its feet and colourful washing flapped against a canvas of a rich red brown. No other building in sight, the land stretched vast for miles.

Peter went into the building and Joanna climbed out and up onto the top of their Dust donkey. There she sat, cross-legged, watching the sun slowly sink. The bright orange ball in front of her blinded her slightly. Every thing around her, just as it stood, was beautiful and she breathed in the dusty dry air with gratitude. Up ahead, Peter stepped out of the building. He was a silhouette and had transformed into an angel. Waving wings extended from his shoulders, black against orange, exquisite, as he lazily walked toward her. It was only when he was standing below her at the front of their car, that she saw his wings were two large ostrich feathers, tucked into the straps of his vest.

‘This looks like a nice spot to spend the night,’ he said, ‘and the room has a fridge.’

‘Great,’ she replied hopping down to join him.

They showered, dressed, and then went to dine in a candlelit courtyard, hidden behind the building. They learnt of where they were over butternut soup, Karoo lamb stew and Malva pudding. Their waiter was a local and told them short tales of the land between courses. When they were served the locally made digestive: a fig liqueur, the owner joined them. She was a middle aged woman with a paintbrush holding her hair in a bun. She smiled at the two with a cigarette dangling from her lip and asked if she could join them.

‘Like it?’ she asked.

‘The liqueur?’ Joanna replied, ‘it’s delicious.’

‘Make it myself here,’ she continued in a thick Afrikaans accent. ‘So where are you two from?’

‘Cape-town,’ Peter replied, ‘do you make anything else?’ he asked.

‘Ya sure. I make ostrich biltong, fig everything and goats cheese.’

‘Then we must get some before we leave,’ Peter said looking over at Joanna, ‘especially the biltong.’

‘How long have you been here,’ Joanna asked addressing the woman.

‘Over fifteen years.’

‘Wow,’ remarked Joanna, ‘and are you happy out here?’

‘Yes,’ she replied looking up at the paintings on the walls of the courtyard.

The paintings were of windmills, painted in different light, each of them depicting a different moment in time. The woman then pointed to one, which was not a windmill. She told them that when he had passed, she had moved into the Karoo. She said that she decided to live a lonely life of extreme quiet rather than live in the city again, where the loneliness turns one into an ugly state. She said she could feel his spirit better when there was no clutter or pollution. She said she was looked after better by his ghost out in the Karoo air and that was the way she liked it. She ended her story, her eyes tenderly glistening, resting on the oils that made up the picture of his young face, a smile of love on her lips. Joanna realised that she was holding her breath. She quickly inhaled a bit of Karoo air with a large smile. ‘Oh I think it’s bed time,’ she announced, ‘it was lovely meeting you.’

Peter and Joanne were escorted to their room by a small boy much like the two they had met at the reservoir. This little boy insisted on making sure they got there safely, skipping next to them barefoot over the sand and stones.

‘We have hungry wild animals out here,’ the boy announced. ‘I know how to chase them,’ he said with pride. Their room was already lit by many candles and as the boy was leaving he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘sorry no electrics after eight.’

‘No electricity?’ returned Peter alarmed, his voice lifting in volume, ‘what about the fridge?’

‘There is a box that generates for the fridge master.’

Peter understood. He was relieved and turned to face his wife as the boy left. She was smiling.

‘Go relax sweetheart, I’m making us a decaf,’ she said.

Peter flung himself onto a large sofa and hooked his feet on the arm. He watched his wife move, finding what she needed to fill her tray. He was filled with love, for a moment he was filled with peace.

The tray was covered in a layer of rose-petals Joanna had detached from the arrangement on the entrance table. Two cups of instant coffee and one large glass of water floated in the sea of roses. A small cup of pills sat next to the water. Thankfully they were still chilled.

Later they lay on fresh white linen with their feet entwined. Both fanned them-selves with one large ostrich feather. Then they fell asleep in each others arms. One hour, two and then three went by. Suddenly Joanna tossed awake. She was covered in perspiration. Her body itched. It itched uncontrollably and burn throbbed in patches here and there. The sensation rose into her head as usual causing fuzz to sweep in like a cloud made up of unbearable discomfort. She glanced over at her Peter sleeping, she did not want to wake him. She hated waking him. She twisted her body out of their bed and walked toward the fridge. Every joint in her body resisted normal functioning, which began the onset of tears.

Her trembling hands reached inside the refrigerator as a rush of heat rose to her neck. ‘Peter,’ she gasped, ‘Peter Help.’

He was at her side opening the cooler box and removing one specific container without needing to look. He held her in his arms, tilted her head back against his shoulder and helped her drink down the pill. He kept her in his arms, their legs spread on the cool tiles of the kitchenette, kept her there until her writhing movement calmed. He caressed her hair and kissed the top of her head.

‘Mother fucking pill,’ she eventually laughed, and they got up. Joanna took a shower and the frantic in their space dissipated, slipping under the door and away. Peter waited in bed, awake and when she joined him he realised that he had been holding his breath. She looked pretty and fresh. Her eyes were no longer scared and normal could only be the perfect description of her beauty.

Joanna slipped in next to him and they lay in the still for a moment or two.

‘I think this place is filled with ghosts,’ Joanna said.

‘You want it to be, don’t you,’ replied Peter.

She looked at him and smiled. ‘Can’t you feel it?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he replied.

‘I can.’

He laughed and they lay there for a few minutes in silence.

Then, she said, ‘Take me to Timbuktu again tomorrow.’

He said, ‘Our dusty donkey awaits. Sleep well now, my love.’