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The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

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December 16, 2013

I had felt him in my blood vessels, for he had come to live in me and I had begun to smell like him, and with his eyes...

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Photo by Vaughan Leiberum

If I could write. Even then, melancholy would take possession of me. Wearily, I take the path to the river, there in the cool to fill my being with the sounds of my sister-being, to refresh myself in the modest scents of pigeonwood and mitzeerie, to let my gaze end in a tangle of monkey ropes and fern arches and the slowly descending leaves, and to find rest, all day long, all night long.

There is always an ape to defile a sanctuary. How irritated I get when animals do not stay within the limits of their animal nature but want to address me on my level.

There is always an ape to defile a sanctuary. How irritated I get when animals do not stay within the limits of their animal nature but want to address me on my level. For instance, the troop of samangos in the top of the waterberry tree. As if they were being sold short by me, as if I represented a great threat, as if I did not also belong, but had to be driven off with reproaches and deep warnings. Glare at me impudently indeed. Reprimand me indeed. Confront me and show disapproval indeed.

So too the gray parrot that my benefactor kept. Cool disapproval, ridicule, derision in the little eyes. If he wished you good morning he meant to push off, and the eyes became small as dots. He turned language inside out so that the meaning fell out and nothing could be said. He fouled his cage. He woke the whole household with his noise and challenged you when you hushed him with such a clear whistle that it split the air with its purity; and he, the prisoner, triumphed. That he with his puny bird intellect could learn how to triumph while I was plagued with depression, and acted uncertainly, and showed that I felt hurt, and defended myself with acrimony, said sneering things behind their backs about the two sons and one daughter who still lived in the house, made myself unloved among the slaves.

Wholly different my relation with the tame serval of the house. How often did I not wish I could scrape together the courage to blandly slip the catch on the door of the parrot’s cage so that he could fly out, the idiot, so that the serval should suddenly jump up from behind a bush somewhere and slap him unconscious in the air and grab him. Then he would carry him off in his mouth and grindingly eat him up, grindingly, till there was nothing left but one grey feather and one red. End of parrot.

Down below in the courtyard walked the speckled cat. He scraped his cheek against a plane bush and a scattering of scarlet, jasper-green, and black blossoms sifted down onto him and grey-white tatters of bark stuck to his snout. He snorted in surprise. Then he trotted off, taking a shortcut across the paving, with decidedly and certainly a most important objective in mind. He paid no attention to my call. He had pinned a gecko with his forepaw, I saw, and was considering what to do next; first he looked up at me, then with cat-specific dissimulation at his pretty. I stared at him. I could stare for long into his changeable eyes and imagine we were one of spirit. He yawned hugely with tongue curled back and as he yawned looked terrifyingly cruel. Yet this illusion was enough to make me understand that we were not playmates and that there was a distance to be maintained between us, which I would keep, I promised him, and stroked his fur and scratched behind his ears. Black-snout-sweet-face, your self-sufficiency amused me. Perhaps we had more in common than you could think.

I consciously call it his hobby because I did not believe his father would allow him to choose fishing as a career…

As a kitten he was made a present to my owner’s youngest son, who as a young boy had apparently collected wild animals as a hobby. In the time of which I speak the son’s interest was concentrated mainly on fishing and one barely saw him at home, for from early till late he was aboard his extremely expensive proa. But when he was here I enjoyed his wonderfully healthy roughness and his boyishness, and enjoyed all his pranks. Young frolicsome man, most attractive, and so serious and laughably touchy when it came to his hobby. I consciously call it his hobby because I did not believe his father would allow him to choose fishing as a career, unless perhaps, unless it could be administered as a subdivision of the family’s business and the boy could then, as befitted a scion of the wealthy, do business and not haul in the nets like a poor simple fisherman.

Now I knew why I felt depressed. I had seen the procession. Well, I knew they were to be expected. Knew they had to turn up some time or other, and therefore went up to the root every blessed day to keep watch, to keep an eye out to see what I had promised myself I would not look at. The terrible procession, nerve-wrackingly slow. I saw them coming from afar from my look-out post and beheld, fascinated despite myself, the signs of brokenness that rent me, crushed my spirit, made me stare despairingly, made me note their fate helplessly every time and keep my sympathies in check, force myself to joke about them so that I could forget and repress. My eyes followed them from where they appeared out of the bushes and bulrushes at the seam of the unraveling residential quarters and wove through the harsh planes of shadow and sunlight on the streets, sometimes disappearing from my field of vision, but I knew the route too well and settled my unwilling gaze in advance on the point where they must reappear; at the head of a few of the men in service, armed but on foot like their human prey, followed by a primitive sedan chair on which the slave hunter sat at rest, rocking on the shoulders of two of his captives, the big boss no longer half-asleep as on the immeasurably long bush path that they had all covered, but wide awake now that the moment, the most important moment was about to dawn, followed by those in chains, some with packs of leopard skins, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, and provisions on their heads, their faces twisted as the neck irons chafed them, followed by the young women and tender little girls shackled to each other with lighter chains. So they trod reluctantly on to the place of destination. At the tail a rearguard of more armed men.

I followed them. I knew where. I took a shortcut through side streets and alleys and across open unbuilt spaces and arrived at the square near the beach before them, and hid behind the tattered dusty castor-oil trees there and the scanty undergrowth around. The arrival of a fresh consignment of slaves was proceeding normally and attracted no one’s attention. Only I was all unwilling eyes.

…My own people half-people may not be people, the compelled, the pitifully strong healthy products.

Clinking, my fellows in fate arrived. The untouched girls, my little sisters. The young eunuchs no longer men, no longer human beings, the survivors of a raid deep into the interior, my own people half-people may not be people, the compelled, the pitifully strong healthy products. They stood still. They were allowed to sit.

The sedan chair was set down. The slave hunter stood up stiffly and stretched, a pleasant long stretch, before he got off his chair and turned his steps towards the city to discuss business over a bowl of fig wine and a pipe of hashish. He was an old man, I saw. He had grey patches of beard at the point of his chin, but he strode quickly as if refreshed by the sea air and cheered up by a sense of relief that the difficult undertaking had gone off successfully as far as the coast. The guards stayed at their post. I wondered if they had been here before. I wondered if the complement of the slaves was full and how many had grown so weak from exhaustion along the road that they had been left behind as unserviceable, and how many of them had perished of marsh fever, and how many had grown rebellious and been killed. Those who were left now lay in silence on the ground. Even some of the guards had sat down.

On the beach a group of urchins was kicking sand at a dead hammerhead shark. They rushed about and barked and growled, pretending to be dogs, and laughed and jumped with exuberance over the shark. They laughed their joy out. They lost interest in the leathery carcass and careered further up the beach looking for fun, picked switches and chased each other further along the foamline of the waves, splashing in the shallows. Brief happiness disappeared from the air. The sultry stillness again closed in.

A few days ago I had seen the hammerhead shark leaping in spasms there on the beach where fish-drying racks cast their grid shadows. It was trying to lift its whole body up from the sand as if wanting to swim upwards into the sky. Sometimes one eye was buried in the sand, sometimes the other; one saw doom, the other spied hope, and in uncertainty the poor thing struggled. Spasmodic jerks, fanatical till death, eyes that till death bisected the world. Would he, even in death, have to reconcile one half with the other half to find his way in that haze? Deeper and deeper he steered himself on into death with twisting movements of the head. To the left hung death as a grey apparition, to the right hung death as a grey apparition, no choice for him, but perhaps he fabricated his own death and chose the total nothing of seeing nothing more, and nothing has neither tinge nor grain nor substance.

I was not permitted to offer refreshments to the new arrivals. I had already tried that in the past and been chased away. Nevertheless I went closer. In my worker’s language I softly welcomed them and expressed my commiseration; but it seemed that no one heard or understood me. Nevertheless I talked to them because I knew of nothing else, and most of all of nothing more effective to do.

He gobbles up everything. He crushes everything. He leaves no bloody trail behind because he stands still. Everything comes to him, feels drawn to him, and he knows it.

I told them all I knew about my origins. Humbly I offered them the scanty history. My facts I patched together as they occurred to me, my memory of a journey with fear the starting point and fear the end point. I was well grounded in the knowledge of fear. I had felt him in my blood vessels, for he had come to live in me and I had begun to smell like him, and with his eyes I had seen forests and plains shift by poisonous and distorted; with his ears I had listened, and there was a growling, and even the stillness rumbled, and there was bitterness in my cheeks. Oh, fear is by no means whatsoever a connoisseur of events. He gobbles up everything. He crushes everything. He leaves no bloody trail behind because he stands still. Everything comes to him, feels drawn to him, and he knows it.

I don’t know. This I know: that I allayed fear and terror in and through my dreams and that thereby I rendered harmless the nameless, the formless. But I had to learn to do that. It was the outcome of affliction. It is something I still do.

This I know: that I was not condemned as these people were, because on the day of my arrival, so I was told, I, the only girl captured, exempted from chains, wandered away from the others, shot down to the sea and picked up a white shell and a black shell. For I am of water. I know what turns the air to water. Then, so they say, it began to rain. Rain, rain drizzled down.

I turned my back on the damned. I was the head slave girl of the richest man here. I had more power than many a wife. Love of ease characterized my life. A lazy contemplation of the stupidity of others that I could afford, with the symbol of my owner’s pleasure in me around my arm like a reprimand to those who would like to humiliate me. Even if the bouts of depression came too often, too often, I gritted my teeth: it dared not get the upper hand. My existence was pomp and circumstance, was sparkle and excitement, was shining rippling water over a bed of pebbles, was secret well water’s blessing upon the lips, was seawater’s beneficence and power.

Like a baby laid on its stomach, curling its spine as it tries to curl upright, so the hammerhead shark had struggled.

Hurriedly, seeing blind, I went over to the dead one and buried him in the sand with my hands, and on my knees sat before the little grave and cried and did not stop. It brought me no relief. I did not stop.

G

Author Image

Wilma Stockenström is one of the most important authors writing in Afrikaans. She has published five novels, seven collections of poems, and one play. She received the Hertzog Prize for Poetry in 1977 and again in 1992. She was awarded Italy’s Grinzane Cavour Prize in 1988 for The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, now published in the U.S. by Archipelago Books. Stockenström has also had a successful career as an actress on stage and in film. She lives in Cape Town.

Author Image

J.M. Coetzee’s work includes Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Foe, and Slow Man, among others. He has been awarded many prizes, including the Booker Prize (twice). In 2003, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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One comment for The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

  1. Comment by Rivka Cohen-Luria on March 29, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Wilma Stockenström – Thank you for the great time while reading this book! Blesses from Israel.

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