Her stories have been published in The Apex Book of World SF vol II, Crossed Genres, Bards and Sages Quarterly, M-Brane SF and Semaphore Magazine. Her novels are published under the pseudonym J. Damask by Lyrical Press.
This is the story’s first publication.
by Joyce Chng
Noraishah watched the dance of the eagles in the air, her digital camera poised in her hands. She seemed to have forgotten about it, so transfixed was she to the dizzying spiralling movements of the sea-eagles. They were a mated pair, appearing frequently in the skies. As long as she could remember, there had always been a mated pair of Lang Siput. White-bellied sea eagles.
The pair were joined to each other with outstretched talons, spinning downwards as they renewed their pair bond in a death-defying act. Grey feathers flashed in the air, like a comet plunging towards the earth. When Noraishah thought they would hit the water, the mated pair pulled out of their dive and veered away, calling out in that familiar cry which made Noraishah’s heart twinge. They flew above the shimmering water, flapping their wings.
Realizing that she was still carrying her camera, she lifted it up and took a few pictures of the two sea-eagles soaring on the thermals, their vows now completed and affirmed. Seeing the eagles reminded her that she had come home.
The sea whispered, waves hissing on the shore beneath the small cliff she was sitting on. It was her favorite childhood spot, where she would watch the sea-eagles hunt for food, skimming over the bright surface of the sea. She placed her camera beside her and leaned back, her face to the sun, feeling its warmth on her face.
She looked back to see her maternal grandfather slowly ambling up the cliff. Slowed by advancing arthritis, Tok Wan still looked strong and hale, his body sinewy and lean, a testimony to his fisherman days. Noraisah remembered the fragrance of fried ikan selar cooking on hot coals, delectable of course with hot sambal belachan and lashings of lime juice.
“I knew you would be here,” Tok Wan said smiling, his face seamed with age and laugh lines. His temples were grizzled with brown-white, like eagle feathers.
Noraishah smiled back. She stood up, brushing her blue jeans, before walking back to the house with her grandfather. Behind her, the sea-eagles called out to each other in a love song.
* * *
Her family house looked the same, as if nothing had ever changed. She was sure that the corrugated iron roof was still rusty and in desperate need of repair. The well was there; every morning, her grandfather washed his face with the cold water and filled buckets for daily use. Poultry clucked on the dry earth, hens pecking at the grains of rice, followed by their chicks.
Stepping into the house, Noraishah could see the wooden eagle sculptures on the shelves, the stylized picture of a sea-eagle painted by one of her aunts and eagle feathers adorning the walls. Tok Wan loved eagles and imparted that love to his children. She knew – with a quiet smile – that the neighbors gossiped he was part eagle himself. When she was a little girl, he had brought her along on his fishing trips and showed her the areas where the mangrove grew, where the kingfishers hunted and where the sandpipers fed on low tide sand banks. He had taught her the various uses of plants found in the forest, including preparing the nuts of the sea almond tree. She had missed those excursions deeply, especially during the cold of winter.
Her ibu treated her to a delicious meal of rice and ikan selar, topped off with a glass of icy-cold coconut juice, perfectly sweet to her tongue. The fish was freshly caught and fried to perfection.
She had not had such wonderful food, not when she was in England reading history. Nothing beat home-cooking.
She fell asleep, later, and dreamt of sea-eagles spinning in the sky, their song weaving through the air.
* * *
She woke to see her grandfather staring out of the window, his face suddenly dark and anxious. She followed his gaze, to see bulldozers rolling in, their machinery at odds with the peaceful tranquility of her family home. Dust clouds puffed up in their wake as they rumbled into the forest.
“Pak?” Noraishah asked tentatively, feeling her grandfather’s anger like a growing thunderhead. The atmosphere in the house was suddenly grim, and goose pimples ran across her arms, causing her to shiver involuntarily. The only time when she had seen him that angry was the day he had rescued a fledgling eaglet from a mass of fishing wire, carelessly left behind by holidaymakers from the city.
“They plan to turn the forest into a golf course.” Tok Wan choked out the words, his brow furrowed. He did not like modern things, and did not care for amenities like television and radio. He walked into a shopping mall once and walked back out, his shoulders stiff in disgust.
Noraishah recalled seeing the huge sign at the roadside with “Green Acres Golf” proudly emblazoned across, with a young couple posing with golf clubs and fixed smiles. It was going to be an exclusive club, targeted at the well-to-do and the upper middle class.
After a quick breakfast of coconut rice and leftover fish, Noraishah followed her grandfather to the forest, slipping past the stationary bulldozers with their napping operators. He brought her to the center of the forest where the sun turned the foliage and canopy to splashes of gold and green. The forest was alive with bird song and insect cries. It was also humid and warm; Noraishah felt as if her clothes were stuck to her skin. She slapped an errant mosquito on her left arm, wincing to see the small splatter of red blood. Her blood. It was something she did not see often in England. There was the tinge of salt in the air – the mangrove swamps were close by, framing the forest.
“Look,” Tok Wan said, his anger gone now, replaced by a reverential whisper. “Up.”
She did and her mouth fell open. It was an eagle’s nest, huge, almost as broad as the tree holding it up. It was composed of an intricate network of twigs. Gazing up, Noraishah could see that the nest was fairly new, because some of the twigs bore green leaves.
“Lang Siput,” her grandfather said, placing his hand on the gnarled tree bark. “Our brothers and sisters.” Sea eagles. Their kin.
Noraishah had to laugh. Grandfather could be so literal. What did the neighbors say about him? Part eagle? Yet listening to his rich voice comforted her. She had indeed returned home.
They walked back to the house. By then, the bulldozers had begun digging ugly trenches across the earth. Tok Wan kept quiet and glared balefully at the machines.
* * *
Noraishah did not think much about the bulldozers. She met up with old friends from her secondary school, chatting amiably about old times over cold latte and capuccino. Sitting in the cool interior of the trendy cafe, she could see dark specks in the blue sky. Eagles. She showed them photographs of the mated pair and they oohed and aahed at the clarity of the wings, back lit by the sun, and at the crystalline spray of water beneath clenched talons.
“Tok Wan still talking about his eagles?” Siti teased her, grinning playfully. Noraishah noticed that her friend had put on weight. She was now a full-time mother to a rambunctious two year-old boy. Back when they were teenagers, they used to walk to school together, chatting about boyfriends and their dreams for the future.
“Yes, he does,” Noraishah sighed. The dark specks had disappeared. She stifled an odd pang of disappointment, smiling at Siti.
When she made her way back, she was shocked to see the forest half-destroyed by the bulldozers and excavators, the trees and shrubs all ripped away, exposing awful gouges in the brown-red soil like dreadful wounds. She was more shocked to feel as if her heart was being ripped away as well, and she gasped, placing her hand on her breast. She could see the surveyors and architects in yellow hard hats, inspecting the land and making notes with their tablets and styluses.
Something moved, like a fast-moving shadow, in the forest. It was not an animal, nor was it a bird. It moved like… sludge water. Like the sickly flow of oil, hovering about the broken tree trunks. As each tree fell, it seemed to grow larger, bolder. Hungrier.
Noraishah blinked, shaking her head. When she looked at the forest once more, the thing was simply not there. An optical illusion, she thought resolutely, and walked determinedly towards the house.
Her mother was standing at the doorway when she finally reached the front porch. Wearing a green kebaya and sarong, she cut an imposing figure, her face regal and her dark hair tied in a ponytail, covered by a thin light green shawl. Her expression, however, filled Noraishah with an uncommon dread.
“It’s your grandfather,” her mother said quietly, casting a worried glance at the forest and at the bulldozers steadily removing the trees. “He’s missing.”
“He might have gone to the beach,” Noraishah shook her head. Suddenly she wished she was back in her cosy dormitory room, cut off from all these worries, her only concern finishing her dissertation.
“Not there. I checked.”
Noraishah’s heart sank. Tok Wan wasn’t a man to go wandering around unannounced. Even when she was growing up, he would inform the family, and Grandmother would leave some food for him on the floor, covered with a straw hat to keep the flies away.
“Did he take anything? His parang? Ibu?”
Her mother looked away, her way of saying “No.” Outside, the bulldozers clanged, making an unholy din.
“The forest. He must be in the forest!” The memory of her grandfather standing beneath the giant tree flashed vividly and Noraishah was gripped with an acute premonition. She opened the door, driven by a wildness to look for her grandfather.
“Aishah!” Her mother called out. “Aishah!”
Noraishah did not turn around, paying no heed to her mother, but headed straight for the roaring bulldozers. The supervisor, a plump Chinese man, his stomach round with good food and beer, yelled at her to stop. She paid no attention to his words. The dust churned from the bulldozers filled her lungs, stinging her eyes. She fought it as if she was fighting some unseen evil. Things rose around her, hissing and snarling incoherently at her. There were voices, sarcastic, hateful and mean-spirited. Leave us be. We are here to take over the land. Go away.
She swatted at those voices. Just dust, just dust. She coughed and pushed her way through the remaining thicket, the branches tearing viciously at her skin.
Noraishah emerged into the center of the forest and the tree was there, solid and infallible. She stared dumbly at the eagle’s nest dominating the entire tree, her face covered with dust and streaked with tears. The bulldozers had removed most of the foliage; the tree was a lone survivor in the middle of a clearing.
It was unusually silent. The birds had all fled.
A figure, wearing a blue tattered sarong wrapped around the waist, sprawled beneath the tree, prostrate as if he was praying. Somehow Noraishah thought she might have shouted something. It felt so much like a dream. She, rushing forward, kneeling down, touching the cool neck of her grandfather. Crying loudly. Grandfather! Grandfather! Time seemed to slow down. He was holding something in his right hand. Two tail feathers.
Someone pulled her away and she struggled with all her might, fighting back with the ferocity of a raptor defending her nest. The hands were too strong, too insistent – and she let them pull her away, her vision blurred by tears.
* * *
They buried Tok Wan in the nearby cemetery after performing the rites. Noraishah did not speak for the entire funeral, holding onto her mother who hung limply against her. Their family gathered around both mother and daughter, silent and united in grief.
The tail feathers rustled in her hand.
Her dream that night was filled with screaming. Her screaming. An eagle’s scream.
* * *
After the last of the relatives had left, Noraishah helped her mother clean the house, her beloved ibu not wanting to touch her grandfather’s belongings. It had been two weeks since he had passed away. Massive heart attack, the coroner had reported. That was Western medicine talking. He died of a broken heart. She could not bear to stay in the house, fretting as if she was a trapped bird. She grabbed her camera and ran to the cliff, glad of the temporary respite.
She scanned the heavens for the mated sea-eagle pair. Nothing. They were gone.
Sorrow warred with rage, an unbearable riptide within her. She wanted to lash out and shred the foreman and his workers into bloody strips. They had destroyed the forest. They had taken her grandfather away from her. She pressed her hands against her temples. “No,” she whispered to herself. “No!” She had a degree in Asian maritime history. She was a rational person. Logic. Reason.
Noraishah shuddered, adrenaline coursing through her body. Something beat inside her ribcage. Pounding heart or flapping wings – she did not care. All she wanted was to confront whatever was inside the forest and powering those bulldozers.
She marched towards the forest, or what was left of it. They were already bringing in the piledriver and the cement mixer. Stacks of equipment were arranged next to barrels of oil.
The thing came out to meet her.
It was a mish-mash of many things, like many mouths all open and moving at the same time. A Greed incarnate, always hungry, always wanting more. It moved like an oil slick, making her eyes water just by looking at it. It flowed around her, taunting her, mocking her. It plunged straight at her, trying to intimidate her, to scare her away, a shadow given life. It sought to corrupt her, its dark tendrils insidious and toxic. Feed me, the mouths said like the flickering of snake tongues. Feed us. The forest is nothing. We grow strong every day and when the new place is built, we will feed on the people. Join us. Join us.
Iblis! Noraishah opened her mouth. What came out was an eagle’s defiant shriek, a hunting shriek. Everything happened simultaneously: feathers sprouting from her body, bones shrinking, pulling in and re-structuring. She spread her arms, embracing the wind.
Her new body threw itself at the black miasma, tearing into it with sharp talons.
* * *
Lim had a splendid meal of nasi bryani and chicken curry. It was mid-day: bristling hot and dry, perfect for taking a brief siesta. His workmen were busy trying to clear out the last of the trees, including the one with the eagle’s nest. A few of the men refused to cut it down, because they argued that the tree was sacred. He wondered idly if he should dock their pay.
He did not know what hit him.
* * *
The workmen told the TV reporter that it was a huge sea-eagle which appeared from nowhere, plummeting from the skies like a lightning bolt. Its talons raked across the supervisor’s neck; he passed out from sheer pain and shock.
They swore it was true. A giant sea-eagle, with a wingspan as broad as a full-grown man with his arms stretched out. A huge Lang Siput. A Garuda come to life.
The forest is sacred, they said with awed and frightened looks. We should not harm it. The Lang Siput is its guardian. We should leave!
* * *
From her room, Noraishah watched the bulldozers roll away one by one, escorted by the trucks still heavy with earth. She drew her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes. Brown-grey eagle-feathers, the plumage of a young female eagle, covered the bed, scattered across the sheets. They radiated from her like an aura. Absentmindedly, she rubbed her hands, still twisted as if they were talons. Her talons.
The black thing, the greed-beast, had fled shrieking. It wouldn’t be back for a very long time. The forest had a new guardian.
Somewhere, Tok Wan smiled.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Henrietta Rose-Innes. Henrietta is a South African fiction writer based in Cape Town. Her most recent novel, Nineveh, was published by Random House Struik in 2011, following two previous novels, Shark’s Egg and The Rock Alphabet, and a collection of short stories, Homing. Her short stories have appeared in various international publications, including Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. In 2012, her short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. Henrietta’s website is www.henriettarose-innes.com.
‘Poison’ won the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing as well as the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award. It is included in Henrietta Rose-Innes’s short-story collection Homing (Random House Struik, 2010).
Lynn had almost made it to the petrol station when her old Toyota ran dry on the highway. Lucky me, she thought as she pulled onto the verge, seeing the red and yellow flags ahead, the logo on the tall facade.
But it was hopeless, she realised as soon as she saw the pile-up of cars on the forecourt. A man in blue overalls caught her eye and made a throat-slitting gesture with the side of his hand as she came walking up: no petrol here either. There were twenty-odd stranded people, sitting in their cars or leaning against them. They glanced at her without expression before turning their eyes again towards the distant city.
In a minibus taxi off to one side, a few travellers sat stiffly, bags on laps. Everyone was quiet, staring down the highway, back at what they’d all been driving away from. An oily cloud hung over Cape Town, concealing Devil’s Peak. It might have been a summer fire, except it was so black, so large. Even as they watched, it boiled up taller and taller into the sky, a plume twice as high as the mountain, leaning towards them like an evil genie.
As afternoon approached, the traffic thinned. Each time a car drew up, the little ceremony was the same: the crowd’s eyes switching to the new arrival, the overalled man slicing his throat, the moment of blankness and then comprehension, eyes turning away. Some of the drivers just stood there, looking accusingly at the petrol pumps; others got back into their cars and sat for a while with their hands on the steering wheels, waiting for something to come to them. One man started up his BMW again immediately and headed off, only to coast to a halt a few hundred metres down the drag. He didn’t even bother to pull over. Another car came in pushed by three sweating men. Their forearms were pumped from exertion and they stood for a while with their hands hanging at their sides, exchanging words in Xhosa with the petrol attendants. There was no traffic at all going into the city.
Over the previous two days, TV news had shown pictures of the N1 and N2 jam-packed for fifty kilometres out of town. It had taken a day for most people to realise the seriousness of the explosion; then everybody who could get out had done so. Now, Lynn supposed, lack of petrol was trapping people in town. She herself had left it terribly late, despite all the warnings. It was typical; she struggled to get things together. The first night she’d got drunk with friends. They’d sat up late in front of the TV, watching the unfolding news. The second night, she’d done the same, alone. On the morning of this, the third, day, she’d woken up with a burning in the back of her throat so horrible that she understood it was no hangover, and that she had to move. By then, everybody she knew had already left.
People were growing fractious, splitting into tribes. The petrol attendants and the car pushers stood around the taxi. The attendants’ body language was ostentatiously off-duty – ignoring the crowd, attending to their own emergency. One, a woman, bent her head into the taxi and addressed the driver in a low voice. He and the gaardjie were the only people who seemed relaxed; both were slouched low on the front seats, the driver’s baseball cap tilted over his eyes. On the other side of the forecourt was a large Afrikaans-speaking family group that seemed to have been travelling in convoy: mother, father, a couple of substantial aunts and uncles, half a dozen blonde kids of different sizes. They had set up camp, cooler bags and folding chairs gathered around them. On their skins, Lynn could see speckles of black grime; everybody coming out of the city had picked up a coating of foul stuff, but on the white people it showed up worse.
A group of what looked like students – tattoos, dreadlocks – sat in a silent line along the concrete base of the petrol pumps. One, a dark, barefoot girl with messy black hair down her back, kept springing to her feet and walking out into the road, swivelling this way and that with hands clamped in her armpits, then striding back. She reminded Lynn of herself, ten years earlier. Skinny, impatient.
A fit-looking man in a tracksuit hopped out of a huge silver bakkie with Adil’s IT Bonanza on its door and started pacing alertly back and forth. Eventually the man – Adil himself? – went over to the family group, squatted on his haunches and conferred.
Lynn stood alone, leaning against the glass wall of the petrol-station shop. The sun stewed in a dirty haze. She checked her cellphone, but the service had been down since the day before. Overloaded. There wasn’t really anyone she wanted to call. The man in the blue overalls kept staring at her. He had skin the colour and texture of damp clay and a thin, villain’s moustache. She looked away.
The dark girl jumped up yet again and dashed into the road. A small red car with only one occupant was speeding towards them out of the smoky distance. The others went running out to join their friend, stringing themselves out across the highway to block the car’s path. By the time Lynn thought about joining them, it was already too late; the young people had piled in and the car was driving on, wallowing, every window crammed with hands and faces. The girl gave the crowd a thumbs-up as they passed.
A group was clustering around one of the cars. Peering over a woman’s shoulder, Lynn could see one of the burly uncles hunkered down in his shorts, expertly wielding a length of hose coming out of the fuel tank. The end was in his mouth. His cheeks hollowed; then with a practised jerk, stopping the spurt of petrol with his thumb, he whipped the hose away from his mouth and plunged it into a jerrycan. He looked up with tense, pale eyes. “Any more?” he asked, too loud. After a while, the group moved on to the next car.
Lynn went to sit inside, in the fried-egg smell of the cafeteria. The seats were red plastic, the table tops marbled yellow, just as she remembered them from childhood road trips. Tomato sauce and mustard in squeezy plastic bottles, crusted around the nozzle. She was alone in the gloom of the place. There were racks of chips over the counter, shelves of sweets, display fridges. She pulled down two packets of chips, helped herself to a Coke and made her way to a window booth. She wished strongly for a beer. The sun came through the tinted glass in an end-of-the-world shade of pewter, but that was nothing new; that had always been the colour of the light in places like this.
Through the glass wall, she could see the petrol scavengers had filled up the tank of Adil’s IT Bonanza. They’d taken the canopy off the bakkie to let more people climb on. The uncles and aunts sat around the edge, turning their broad backs on those left behind, with small children and bags piled in the middle and a couple of older children standing up, clinging to the cab. What she’d thought was a group had split: part of the white family was left behind on the tar, revealing itself as a young couple with a single toddler, and one of the sweaty car pushers was on board. The blue-overalled guy was up front, next to Adil. How wrong she’d been, then, in her reading of alliances. Perhaps she might have scored a berth, if she’d pushed.
She sipped her Coke thoughtfully as the bakkie pulled away. Warm Coke: it seemed the electricity had gone too, now. Lynn picked at the strip of aluminium binding the edge of the table. It could be used for something. In an emergency. She opened a packet of cheese-and-onion chips, surprised by her hunger. She realised she was feeling happy, in a secret, volatile way. It was like bunking school: sitting here where nobody knew her, where no one could find her, on a day cut out of the normal passage of days. Nothing was required of her except to wait. All she wanted to do was sit for another hour, and then another hour after that; at which point she might lie down on the sticky vinyl seat in the tainted sunlight and sleep.
She hadn’t eaten a packet of chips for ages. They were excellent. Crunching them up, she felt the salt and fat repairing her headache. Lynn pushed off her heeled shoes, which were hurting, and untucked her fitted shirt. She hadn’t dressed for mass evacuation.
The female petrol attendant opened the glass door with a clang, then pushed through the wooden counter-flap. She was a plump, pretty young woman with complexly braided hair. Her skin, Lynn noticed, was clear brown, free from the soot that flecked the motorists. She took a small key on a chain from her bosom and opened the till, whacking the side of her fist against the drawer to jump it out. With a glance across at Lynn, she pulled a handful of fifty-rand notes from the till, then hundreds.
“Taxi’s going,” she said.
“Really? With what petrol?”
“He’s got petrol. He was just waiting to fill the seats. We made a price – for you too, if you want.”
“You’re kidding. He was just waiting for people to pay? He could’ve taken us any time?”
The woman shrugged, as if to say: taxi drivers. She stroked a thumb across the edge of the wad of notes. “So?”
Lynn hesitated. “I’m sure someone will be here soon. The police will come. Rescue services.”
The woman gave a snort and exited the shop, bumping the door open with her hip. The door sucked slowly shut, and then it was quiet again. Lynn watched through the tinted window as the money was handed over. The transaction revived the inert gaardjie. He straightened up and started striding back and forth, clapping his hands, shouting and hustling like it was Main Road rush hour. The people inside the taxi edged up in the seats and everyone else started pushing in. The driver spotted Lynn through the window and raised his eyebrows, pointing with both forefingers first at her and then at the minibus and then back at her again: coming? When she just smiled, he snapped his fingers and turned his attention elsewhere.
Lynn realised she was gripping the edge of the table. Her stomach hurt. Getting up this morning, packing her few things, driving all this way … it seemed impossible for her to start it all again. Decision, action, motion. She wanted to curl up on the seat, put her head down. But the taxi was filling up. People were being made to leave their bags and bundles on the tar.
Her body delivered her: all at once, her digestion seemed to have speeded up dramatically. Guts whining, she trotted to the bathroom. Earlier, there’d been a queue for the toilets, but now the stalls were empty. In the basin mirror, Lynn’s face was startlingly grimed. Her hair was greasy, her eyes pink, as if she’d been weeping. Contamination. Sitting on the black plastic toilet seat, she felt the poisons gush out of her. She wiped her face with paper and looked closely at the black specks smeared onto the tissue. Her skin was oozing it. She held the wadded paper to her nose. A faint coppery smell. What was this shit? The explosion had been at a chemical plant, but which chemical? She couldn’t remember what they’d said on the news.
She noticed the silence. The slightly reverberating stillness of a place just vacated.
When she went outside, there was nobody left on the forecourt. The battered white taxi was pulling out, everyone crammed inside. The sliding door was open, three men hanging out the side with their fingers hooked into the roof rim. Lynn ran after it onto the highway, but the only person who saw her was the blond toddler crushed against the back windscreen, one hand spread against the glass. He held her gaze as the taxi picked up speed.
The cloud was creeping higher behind her back, casting a murk, not solid enough to be shadow. She could see veils of dirty rain bleeding from its near edge. Earlier, in the city, she had heard sirens, helicopters in the sky; but there was no noise out here. Standing alone on the highway was unnerving. This was for cars. The road surface was not meant to be touched with hands or feet, to be examined too closely or in stillness. The four lanes were so wide. Even the white lines and the gaps between them were much longer than they appeared from the car: the length of her whole body, were she to lie down in the road. She had to stop herself looking over her shoulder, flinching from invisible cars coming up from behind.
She thought of the people she’d seen so many times on the side of the highway, walking, walking along verges not designed for human passage, covering incomprehensible distances, toiling from one obscure spot to another. Their bent heads dusty, cowed by the iron ring of the horizon. In all her years of driving at speed along highways, Cape Town, Joburg, Durban, she’d never once stopped at a random spot, walked into the veld. Why would she? The highways were tracks through an indecipherable terrain of dun and grey, a blurred world in which one glimpsed only fleetingly the sleepy eyes of people standing on its edge. To leave the car would be to disintegrate, to merge with that shifting world. How far could she walk, anyway, before weakness made her stumble? Before the air thickened into some alien gel, impossible to wade through, to breathe?
It was mid-afternoon but it felt much later. Towards the city, the sky was thick with blood-coloured light. It was possible to stare at the sun – a bleached disk, like the moon of a different planet. The cloud was growing. As she watched, a deep occlusion spread towards her, pulling darkness across the sky. She ducked reflexively and put her hands up against the strange rain. But the raindrops were too big, distinct – and she realised that they were in fact birds, thousands of birds, sprinting away from the mountain. They flew above her and around her ears: swift starlings, labouring geese. Small, rapid birds tossed against the sky, smuts from a burning book. As they passed overhead, for the first time Lynn was filled with fear.
* * *
Approximately fifty packets of potato chips, assorted flavours. Eighty or so chocolate bars, different kinds. Liquorice, wine gums, Smarties. Maybe thirty bottles and cans of Coke and Fanta in the fridges. Water, fizzy and plain: fifteen big bottles, ten small. No alcohol of any kind. How much fluid did you need to drink per day? The women’s magazines said two litres. To flush out the toxins. Would drinking Coke be enough? Surely.
So: two weeks, maybe three. The survival arithmetic was easy. Two weeks was more than enough time; rescue would come long before then. She felt confident, prepared. Boldly, she pushed through the wooden flap and went behind the counter. The till stood open. Beyond were two swing doors with head-high windows, and through them a sterile steel-fitted kitchen, gloomy without overhead lighting. Two hamburger patties, part-cooked, lay abandoned on the grill, and a basket of chips sat in a vat of opaque oil. To the right was a back door with a metal pushbar. She shoved it.
The door swung open on to a sudden patch of domesticity: three or four black bins, a clothesline, sunlight, some scruffy bluegums and an old two-wire fence with wooden posts holding back the veld. A shed with a tilted corrugated-iron roof leaned up against the back wall. The change in scale and atmosphere was startling. Lynn had not imagined that these big franchised petrol stations hid modest homesteads. She’d had the vague sense that they were modular, shipped out in sections, everything in company colours. Extraneous elements – employees – were presumably spirited away somewhere convenient and invisible at the end of their shifts. But this was clearly somebody’s backyard. It smelt of smoke and sweat and dishwater, overlaying the burnt grease of the kitchen. Through the doorway of the shed she could see the end of an iron bed and mattress. On the ground was a red plastic tub of the kind used to wash dishes or babies. Two plastic garden chairs, one missing a leg. A rusted car on bricks.
Lynn laughed out loud. Her car! Her own car, twenty years on: the same model blue Toyota, but stripped to a shell. The remaining patches of crackled paint had faded to the colour of a long-ago summer sky. The roof had rusted clean through in places, and the bottom edges of the doors were rotten with corrosion. Old carpeting was piled on the back seat and all the doors were open. Seeing the smooth finish gone scabrous and raw gave Lynn a twinge at the back of her teeth.
She walked past the car. There was a stringy cow on the other side of the fence, its pelt like mud daubed over the muscles. A goat came avidly up to the wire, watching her with slotted eyes, and she put her arm through and scratched the coarse hair between its horns. The cow also mooched over in an interested way. Smelling its grassy breath, Lynn felt a tremor of adventure. She could be here for days.
She felt no fear at the prospect: nobody else was here, nobody for miles around. (Although briefly she saw again: the hand sliding across the throat …) Out here, the sky looked completely clear, as if the petrol station marked the limit of the zone of contamination. She shot her fingers at the goat and snapped them like the taxi-man, spun round in a circle, humming. And breathed in sharply, stepping back hard against the wire.
Someone was in the car. The pile of rugs had reconstituted itself into an old lady, sitting on the back seat as if waiting to be chauffeured away.
Lynn coughed out a laugh, slapping her chest. “Oh god, sorry,” she said. “You surprised me.”
The old lady worked her gums, staring straight ahead. She wore a faded green button-up dress, a hand-knitted cardigan, elasticised knee stockings and slippers. Grey hair caught in a meagre bun.
Lynn came closer. “Hello?” she began. Afrikaans? Hers was embarrassingly weak. “Hallo?” she said again, giving the word a different inflection. Ridiculous.
No response. Poor thing, she thought, someone just left her here. Would the old lady even know about the explosion? “Sorry … tannie?” she tried again.
She’d never seriously called anyone tannie before. But it seemed to have some effect: the old lady looked at her with mild curiosity. Small, filmed black eyes, almost no whites visible. A creased face shrunken onto fine bones. An ancient mouse.
“Hi. I’m Lynn. Sorry to disturb you. Ah, I don’t know if anyone’s told you – about the accident? In Cape Town.”
The woman’s mouth moved in a fumbling way. Lynn bent closer to hear. “My grandson,” the old lady enunciated, softly but clearly, with a faint smile. Then she looked away, having concluded a piece of necessary small talk.
“He told you about it?” No answer.
So. Now there was another person to consider, an old frail person, someone in need of her help. Lynn felt her heaviness return. “Tannie,” she said – having begun with it she might as well continue – “There’s been an accident, an explosion. There’s chemicals in the air. Poison, gif. It might be coming this way. I think we should go out front. There might be people coming past who can help us. Cars. Ambulances.”
The old lady seemed not averse to the idea, and allowed Lynn to take her arm and raise her from her seat. Although very light, she leaned hard; Lynn felt she was lugging the woman’s entire weight with one arm, like a suitcase. Rather than negotiate the series of doors back through the station, they took the longer route, clockwise around the building on a narrow track that squeezed between the back corner of the garage and the wire fence. Past the ladies, the gents, the café. As they walked, it started to rain, sudden and heavy. The rain shut down the horizon; its sound on the forecourt canopy was loud static. Lynn wondered how tainted the falling water was.
She sat the old lady down on a sheltered bench outside the shop, and fetched some bottles of water and packets of chips from inside. Then she urgently needed to use the bathroom again. The toilet was no longer flushing. Her guts felt liquid, but she strained to force anything out. The headache was back.
Outside, she saw the rain had stopped, as abruptly as it started, leaving a rusty tang in the air. The old lady had vanished. Then Lynn spotted movement out on the road: her car door was open. Coming closer, she saw that the woman was calmly eating tomato chips in the back seat. Having transferred herself from the wreck in the backyard to the superior vehicle out front, she was now waiting for the journey to recommence.
A neat old lady, Lynn noted: there were no crumbs down her front. She seemed restored by the chips. Her eyes gleamed as she whipped a plastic tortoiseshell comb out of a pocket and started snatching back wisps of hair, repinning the bun with black U-bend pins that Lynn hadn’t seen since her own grandmother died. In contrast, Lynn felt increasingly dishevelled, and embarrassed about her tip of a car: the empty Heineken bottles on the floor, the tissues in the cubbyhole. She should have kept things cleaner, looked after things better.
“My grandson,” the woman said to Lynn, with a nod of reassurance.
“Of course,” said Lynn.
Evening was coming. The clouds had retreated somewhat and were boiling over the mountain. The brief rain had activated an awful odour – like burnt plastic but with a metallic bite, and a whiff of sourness like rotten meat in it too. Lynn sat in the front seat, put the keys into the ignition and gripped the steering wheel. She had no plan. The sky ahead was darkening to a luminous blue. The silent little woman was an expectant presence in her rear-view mirror. Oppressed, Lynn got out of the car again and stood with her hands on her hips, staring east, west, willing sirens, flashing lights. She ducked back into the car. “I’ll be back in a sec, okay? You’re all right there?”
The woman looked at her with polite incomprehension. Lynn just needed to walk around a bit. She headed off towards the sun, which was melting into smears of red and purple. The mountain was no longer visible. The road was discoloured, splattered with lumps of some tarry black precipitate. She counted five small bodies of birds, feathers damp and stuck together. Blades of grass at the side of the road were streaked with black, and the ground seemed to be smoking, a layer of foul steam around her ankles. It got worse the further she walked. She turned around.
There was someone stooped over her car. At once she recognised the moustache, the blue overalls. Her first impulse was to hide. She stood completely still, watching. He hadn’t seen her. The clay-faced man was holding something … a box. No, a can. He had a white jerrycan in his hands and he was filling her car with petrol.
Lynn’s stomach roiled and she crouched down at the side of the road, vomiting a small quantity of cheese-and-onion mulch into the stinking grass. When she raised her chin, the man was standing looking back at the petrol station. Deciding, she made herself stand, raising her hand to wave. But in that moment he opened the door and got in; the motor turned immediately and the car was rolling forward. She could see the back of the old woman’s head, briefly silver as the car turned out into the lane, before the reflection of the sunset blanked the rear windscreen. The Toyota headed out into the clear evening.
* * *
Lynn sat in the back of the rusted car and watched the sky turn navy and the stars come out. She loved the way the spaces between the stars had no texture, softer than water; they were pure depth. She sat in the hollow the old lady had worn into the seat, ankles crossed in the space where the handbrake used to be. She sipped Coke; it helped with the nausea. She’d been here three days and her head felt clear. While there’d been a few bursts of warm rain, the chemical storm had not progressed further down the highway. It seemed the pollution had created its own weather system over the mountain, a knot of ugly cloud. She was washed up on the edge of it, resting her oil-clogged wings on a quiet shore.
Sooner or later, she was certain, rescue would come. The ambulances with flashing lights, the men in luminous vests with equipment and supplies. Or maybe just a stream of people driving back home. But if that took too long, then there was always the black bicycle that she’d found leaned up against the petrol pump. The woman’s grandson must have ridden here, with the petrol can, from some place not too far down the road. It was an old postman’s bike, heavy but hardy, and she felt sure that if he had cycled the distance, so could she. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after. And when this was all over, she was definitely going to go on a proper detox. Give up all junk food, alcohol. Some time soon.
Lynn snapped open a packet of salt-’n’-vinegar chips. Behind her, the last of the sunset lingered, poison violet and puce, but she didn’t turn to look. She wanted to face clear skies, sweet-smelling veld. If she closed her eyes, she might hear a frog, just one, starting its evening song beyond the fence.