What Happened in Namaqualand?
by Leila Green
A twelve-year-old boy shows up to his father’s doorstep with one pair of jeans, two t-shirts, a toothbrush, a hairbrush and a bar of soap. He’s come from Cape Town to Namaqualand with everything but memories; he’s never met his father. But he got invited and his mother insisted, so he boarded a bus and held his breath.
He knocks on the door. It opens. The father, Mychal, stands with his arms anxiously ajar. Wisps of rain sneak through the threshold as the boy, Shane, enters the neat home: a tiny rondavel on the edge of a vast veld. Farmer’s quarters. For one month, this will be his home. After, school will start again, and he’ll take the bus back to his mother’s home in Cape Town.
Mychal shuts the door. They go deeper into the house, past two dusty chairs and a cluttered card table. Past a tiny analog TV and a stack of bloated newspapers. He lives alone and, as far as the sparse decor indicates, doesn’t have many visitors. Shane lets himself wonder.
Mychal isn’t talkative. He has a limp. Every step feels like an interrogation. As he hobbles to the kitchen, Shane shuffles slowly behind.
“How was the bus?” He mumbles in Afrikaans. Shane can barely hear him. “Good,” he mumbles back, still standing, clutching his bag. “It must have been boring…” Mychal grunts. “You see, here there’s flowers and then there’s nothing.”
The first night is dim, they share a meal on opposite ends of a lumpy candlestick. Polony sandwiches with boiled mealies. “You’re big for your age.” Mychal leans back in his chair. Shadows slice his face.
“Yea,” Shane says.
“Ja,” Mychal concurs, eyeing the window. Shane searches his sight. Looking outside: there is only a black stretch of endless grass and tar.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Mychal rises, clears the table. “’What must I do out here?’ Well, let me tell you: I take care of the land and I feed the animals.”
Shane scoots his chair closer to the table.
“And, since you’re here. You will help me with the farm. Weeding and watering. Tending. Milking.” Mychal uncrosses his arms.
Shane burrows his chin in his fist. Mychal goes on, still looking out the window, seeming to talk at the world: “You will go into grade seven with muscles and such. Since you are here, right? Don’t you think? We can even start tomorrow.”
Shane nods quickly. It will be good. Yes. It will be a good thing. They will do it together, the two of them.
They go to the fields the next day. Then, for two straight weeks, they work.
On the 14th day, Shane feels his body wave a flag of surrender. His shoulders ache. The back of his neck is raw. Aflame, he sulks at the kitchen table after work, throbbing and trying to gather the energy to fix himself a sandwich. Crops of blisters erupt on his palms. It’s only six o’clock, but Mychal is already asleep. Shane starts to drift, too. But there is a sudden, shrill knock on the door.
Three boys stand at the threshold, barefoot. “We’ve seen you,” says the tallest one in a strange-sounding Afrikaans. His front tooth is missing. “Over there in the fields every day with Mychal,” he points behind himself, across the road and to the field opposite the rondavel. The boy spits on the ground. Shane grows dizzy.
Then the boys all lean against each other, going on about all the work they’ve seen Shane doing. Shane meets the speaking boy’s eyes again. They look to be aflame; hazel and glimmering. “That Mychal,” he concludes loudly, “he is working you too hard. He’s making you do the work he doesn’t want to do that baas has assigned him. Tomorrow. You must dodge,” he insists. “And chill with us.”
Shane observes the younger boys; they look to be 13 or 14. Both are darker than the speaking boy, who said his name was Faulkner. Both are silent and thin; cradling their elbows behind their backs. Twins.
“And who are you?” Shane steps out the house, folds his aching arms across his chest.
“We also work for the baas. Yea, he is a Boer, but he is our grandfather. Tending, planting. But only part-time. You look so bored working, bru. Come on.” Faulkner pauses. Shane closes the door, then edges closer: “Do you really think he’s working me too hard? I mean, I didn’t even come here to work—” Faulkner cringes: “Look. Stop. Just let us in tomorrow. Fake sick. Stay back. Let him go to the fields. He goes. We come here. Understand?” Shane uncrosses his arms. One of the twins shrugs: “Just dodge, dude. It’s summer break. We are also bored here.”
The first click is harsh. Boom. Shane feels his eyes rip out their sockets. “Eish,” one of the twins throws his head back. “I forgot to turn off the flash. Here, try again.” He fiddles with the phone then returns it. Shane grabs it with both hands, twists his wrists and aims for his face. He takes another selfie, this time flashless. The boys, giddy with desire, hop and huddle around the tiny screen. Faulkner snatches the phone, then forces the three boys to surround him. “Come,” he sneers at Shane. “We must go before your daddy comes back.” The twins laugh. Shane peers out the front window for what feels like the thousandth time. Still no Mychal in sight. Faulkner lifts the phone, nudges the twins: “We must get going. I’m sure baas is sending Mychal home soon. But before our little day off is over,” He throws his arms tightly around their necks. “Let’s all take one last picture together.”
The next morning, Mychal wakes Shane before sunrise. “You can’t be sick two days in a row.” Shane stirs on the pallet, eyes still shut. Mychal nudges his shoulder with his garden boot. Shane swats him away.
“You must come,” he insists. “We’ve got work.”
A well of anger sits in his throat. Aside from the previous day, Shane had worked for two weeks straight. At first, he did not mind the labor—in between weeds and stalks, Mychal would pat him on the back, even tell him things he never knew. Like how he met his mother (at the clinic) and where he was born (Knysna).
In the first week, on a rare break lounging under a tree, they’d even leaned back together against the thick bark, shirts slung on the ground. Shane flicked sweat off his forehead. But then the question just spilled out:
“How come you never came to Cape Town?”
Mychal had brought a leg to his chest, then hugged it for a while: “It just doesn’t suit me.”
Then Mychal rose. “Come,” he heaved, pointing to the crops surrounding them. “We must finish.”
Shane blinks, rubs his eyes, looks up at Mychal from his floor pallet. “My back,” he groans. “It still hurts. I’ll still need to rest today. Perhaps the whole weekend.” Mychal’s hands drop from his hips.
On the 21st day, Faulkner and the twins stumble across the road again. Mychal answers, scowling. Giggling, the three ask for Shane.
“He is busy. Go away. I am so tired of you all.”
“But Mr. Mychal,” Faulkner plays coy, “Work is finished for the day. It’s only 8 o’clock. You shouldn’t treat your boy like this. You’re using him, you know? Can’t he just come with us for the evening?”
“He isn’t well, Faulkner. Leave him alone.”
“I’ll go,” Shane appears behind Mychal like a shadow, blistered hands slung in his pocket. Mychal spins around saying no, that he cannot because those boys are trouble, that baas spoils them and lets them do whatever they want.
Shane rushes past and out the door and slams right into Faulkner, who stumbles then catches Shane’s arm mid-run: “Chill,” Faulkner smirks. “He’s too lazy to chase after you.” They all run anyway.
Right before the door slams, Shane swears he hears his father scream one of two things:
- Come back here.
- Don’t come back here.
They run quickly away, at first, the four of them. But with each slap of his foot into the road, Shane glances backward, chewing the inside of his cheek.
Up ahead, there’s nothing but night. Their run slows to a jog, then a walk. Out in the distance, a tall stream of smoke stretches from some far away point to the sky. “What’s it?” Shane wonders. “Crop-burning.” the twins answer. Shane scratches his neck: “There’s no firefighters?”
“Nee,” Faulkner rolls his eyes, strikes a match, then lets the flame grow before he pinches it out.
Shane turns to them, “I’m going to be a firefighter. One day.”
“What you got yourself a job already? Is that how they do it in Cape Town?” Faulkner is impressed.
“Well, after I finish school.” They hobble forward, straying from each other, then conjoining again. Shane whips around a final time, squinting to see Mychal’s house. All the lights are off. He pushes forward in unison with the boys.
The road is empty, dark and endless. They walk tightly together. It gets colder. Shane tilts his head back and looks up, then jumps as high as he can. For just a moment, all he can see is infinity. They joke and veer off the road, foraging through tall grass, sticks, dead flowers.
Shane wakes up feeling like someone’s lounging on his chest. He squirms a bit, the blaze of sunrise pierces his lids. His back is drenched with morning grass. Head throbbing, mouth dry, he opens his eyes to see a pile of pink flowers atop his chest. Faulkner sits next to him, up already, knees drawn to his chest. “Blanket.” He winks. The other boys are spread throughout the thick grass and flowers, huddled in sleep. “Where are we?”
“Chill,” Faulkner rises slowly, then warily surveys the whole field of grass. The main road is nowhere in sight. “We’ll find our way back,” he proclaims. “It’s still morning.”
“Oh. Now I remember. You’re a city guy. Well, look, we’re country boys—this is our territory. Okay?” He stomps toward the twins and kicks each of their shoulders so their bodies roll over and they rise. “We must go,” He hoists a struggling twin up and brushes his chest free of dirt. “The city boy’s worried.”
The four trudge through the tall grass on the lookout for the main road. Laced with hunger and thirst, they stretch their legs farther with each step. Shane’s head pounds with loss—he can’t recall what they’d done last night. He struggles to keep up with the boys, they walk quickly, without pause. His mind drifts back to Cape Town, back to those farm-bound, sweat-filled mornings with Mychal.
Hours pass. Hungry, tired hours. As they rummage through the field, still no road in sight, Shane feels the taste leave his tongue. He thinks of his father on his knees tugging weeds, squeezing the prickly udder of a cow. Alone again.
He jogs a bit to keep up with Faulkner, who’s surged even farther in front, cursing and spitting. He keeps turning, scratching his head, spinning then saying: “It’s this way.” There are grey clouds and flocks of long-winged birds. The grasses sway. The little twin tugs his phone out his pocket. “Faulkner, it’s two. And I’m at 10%.” Faulkner turns around and punches him in the stomach. The collective pace quickens.
When, hours later, the gravel rises suddenly from the darkening horizon, they hoot and cheer. It’s not a mirage. Shane walks faster than the others. “I must get back to my dad,” he explains.
“Ag,” Faulkner wheezes, delirious. “You think he’s missed you, don’t you? How cute.” He elbows the twins, laughing dryly.
Shane’s stomach growls, black crystals swim in his eyes. He widens his stride.
“You know what I think?” Faulkner says to no one in particular. “I think the city boy thinks he’s better than us. He thinks ‘cause he lives in Cape Town he’s hot shit. But he didn’t even know about crop-burning and he wants to be a fucking firefighter.”
Shane walks faster. Faulkner’s taunts from behind propel him forward, ahead. It is true; they are all tired and hungry and perhaps even out of their minds, but he can’t think of exactly what he’s done to deserve Faulkner’s insults.
Shane turns around and briefly faces Faulkner, swallowing everything: “Let’s just go on. Okay? We almost there.” There should be peace. Weren’t they friends? Faulkner’s t-shirt is soaked; two blood roses sprout on his chest. Shane turns, surges further forward and can suddenly see the outline of his father’s house. He can’t wait to sit and drink water. He can’t wait to get away from Faulkner. He can’t wait to see him and say sorry.
Faulkner spits viciously. “We give this guy our food, our dagga and he thinks he’s the shit. Look at his bony ass, walking ahead like a fag. He walks like a girl, yea?” Shane walks faster.
Faulkner stops, whips a match out his pocket and strikes it. The flame, orange and glowing, lands in the grass before him. A few blades catch fire, then a few more. Faulkner whistles. Shane whips around.
Faulkner stands behind the flames, his face a series of shadows. Pointing at the growing plot of fire, he barks at Shane to put it out. Shane freezes. Faulkner insists that if Shane is really going to be a firefighter, he must put it out. The twins hop away from the fire, joining Shane on the other side. “Come on Shane,” they beg, “Just stomp it out so we can go home. Please. Faulkner’s just joking.”
Faulkner doesn’t budge. He seems to be immune to the flames, which spread in Shane’s direction, towards the road just a few feet ahead. “Put it out!” He stomps, laughing. “Come on,” he cackles. “Look,” he spits as Shane backs away, the flames licking his shoes, “I’ll even help.”
Shane hobbles backwards, trips on a rock and lands on his back. The heat props him immediately up, then he gets to work, stomping every patch of fire he can reach. Each crackling and pounding feels like landing on lava.
The fire soon blooms beyond a simple stomping out. Faulkner’s laughter thins. “It was an accident.” he snaps. “I was kidding.” The twins run first, sprinting left, as far as they can. Faulkner follows them. Then Shane runs, too. But in the other direction.
Leila Green is a 25-year-old writer from Milwaukee. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, The Offing, Fjords Review, Columbia Journal, and other places. She reviews books on Instagram as @black.book.quotes.