“Blackwood” by Sam Grieve

07Oct13

The kid was at the intersection again, big-eyed and snotty-nosed. No shoes. Someone had given him a charity jersey, in grandmotherly powder blue, and he wore this hanging low down his shorts. Jonah rolled up his window as he decelerated, and fixed his gaze ahead, but alas, the kid spotted him and wove with determination through the traffic to Jonah’s side.

“Please,” he whispered pathetically, pressing his face against the window and leaving a streak of something unsanitary on the glass. The traffic light, the slowest in all recorded history, lingered on red. If Jonah stared at it hard enough, he saw it was made up of seven little lights, all imbedded in one single stubborn bulb.

The kid continued to beg outside his window. Jonah jacked the music up to full volume, but he could still sense the kid’s mouth moving, the plaintive abasement of his body. Jonah shook his head once, fast.

The kid touched the window again, but just as he did the light changed, so Jonah jammed his foot down hard, and 440 horsepower of advanced German engineering surged into the evening with a roar.

* * *

At sunrise, he rose to cut down wattles. The kitchen staff—three women of indeterminate age, heads wrapped in colored cloths and skirts hanging to their pale heels—were already up. They had lit the fire, brewed coffee, and now Lena, the spokeswoman, despite her limited communication, flicked leaves off the veranda with a straw broom. Jonah sat at the table, and Lena swayed into the corrugated-walled kitchen. She emerged a minute later with a tin cup of coffee and a bowl of white corn porridge.

“Nkosi.” Jonah picked up his spoon. The porridge had been salted and was studded with pellets of cold butter, and as he finished the bowl, the sun emerged fully from behind the hills opposite, its straight golden fingers rummaging into the indigenous forests below.

“I think it is going to be a hot one,” mused Jonah aloud.

“Mmmhuh.” Lena turned her back on him and with slow movements began tugging the cushions off the sofas. A field mouse, striped and at least six inches long, leapt from under her hands and vanished into a small hole at the vertex of the floor and mud wall.

“So I see he is still sleeping under there. Quite a determined little bugger.”

No response from Lena. She and the two others, Chuma and Andiswe, had appeared like ghosts out of the woods a few months before, their faces traditionally painted with clay. Perhaps they had heard of him in the village, or maybe the sound of his knapping had echoed down the gorge, but they had come to work for him, and Jonah, sweat-drenched and skinny, could not withstand their placid determination. Lena had negotiated the rates. Jonah had agreed.

* * *

He had bought the land on a whim.

Sometimes he thought he was crazy. Six hectares in the middle of nowhere utterly crazy. No power. No phone line. At least Gert had cleared some trees and started an eco settlement on the lower hill, so there was a composting toilet, and the well tapped into a spring of such clarity that Jonah occasionally wondered if he should bottle and sell the stuff. The spring also fed an outside shower, the head of which hung from the branches of a fig tree. And the remnants of the old farmhouse still stood: the clay-smooth veranda, an archaic wood-burning oven, and a lean-to, which housed the kitchen and its odiferous gas-fired fridge. Jonah slept in his tent, but he had begun work on the house, building up the crumbled walls to make a bedroom. In winter it snowed up here, and he planned to be sleeping inside by then, waking up in relative warmth beneath a ceiling of wattle beams and thatch.

* * *

He had come out this way when Leanne left him and took the girls to Johannesburg. The day of their departure, he got on his bike and set out eastward, back to where he had come from. Was it spite? Or soul-searching? He wasn’t even sure. At the onset, driving out toward Stellenbosch, he hadn’t intended to go off the grid, but the further he drove, the less he wanted to see people. Soon he was deliberately hiding, like a child playing a game, sticking to dirt trails and pitching his tent in the fynbos, and then the bushveld as he went further east. His movement was gradual, snail-like. He slept late into the day, explored paths, hiked every empty trail, saw things he had forgotten existed: an Erica, with its waxy, fuchsia bells; the discarded lace of snakeskin, a fossilized trilobite imprinted into rock.

Was Leanne trying to get hold of him? He had no idea. Somewhere in the Hottentot Holland Mountains, three days into his trip, he threw away his BlackBerry, watched it tumble and splinter into a ravine. His beard grew out until it no longer itched. His clothes stank. He washed in mountain streams and bought food from farm stalls and petrol stations that he ate at the end of the day: fruit, meat pies, homemade breads, sticks of biltong. At night, in his sleeping bag, he fingered the barricade of his rib cage, its growing prominence. He took the time to watch the movement of the stars. He was amazed how little you had to communicate if you chose not to, and following the last two years with Leanne, their endless talking, he needed this. An elemental silence.

* * *

Six weeks of meandering led him into the shadow of the Amatola Mountains. The roads were noticeably bad out here, potholed, less governed. Herds of goats drifted bleating across the tarmac. He passed cows grazing on the verges, and prickly-pear sellers, sitting on upturned buckets in the shade of the sweet-thorn trees. The landscape continually remade itself, from bushveld, with its glowing spikes of aloe flower, or its clouds of plumbago that settled in blue mists on the dun foliage, to valleys of citrus—oranges gleaming on the waxy trees like Christmas baubles. He drove through farming towns, sad, disaffected places, with their decaying Victorian buildings that now housed African barbers, or shops selling Chinese clothing, stopping only occasionally to refuel.

He reached Lennox in late afternoon. He had last been here in 1979, two years before his dad fell asleep at the wheel. Jonah had been eleven years old, which would have made his dad, he calculated, three years younger than his own age now. The thought was sobering, for the father he remembered from that trip was an old man, skin thickened from sun and too much hard living.

“He wasn’t a family man,” Jonah’s mother had explained to him after his dad walked out. “He felt trapped by it all. By me. By work.”

For years, Jonah had been incapable of forgiving his dad, but recently, as communication with Leanne had unraveled and Jonah himself felt like running away, he had begun to see his father in a new light. Maybe his old man wasn’t such a bad guy. Maybe he was just a guy.

* * *

Lennox was barely a village at all but a series of driveways that headed off into the forest. He got off his bike, removed his helmet. The air was intoxicatingly clean; hydrangeas bloomed in manic effulgence in the hedgerows. A thatched cottage fronted by rosebushes doubled as the church and the tourist office, and he headed toward it, conscious suddenly of his state.

As he approached, an emaciated man appeared from nowhere, touting a clay hog in his hand. The sculpture was surprisingly beautiful, its muscular flanks decorated with delicate whorls of white clay, but Jonah waved him off. “Only twenty-five rand,” the guy yelled hopefully.

Inside, a white woman, abundantly filled out below the waist, took one look at him and suggested Gert’s place. “There is nicer accommodation of course,” she explained, the question of his (improbable) finances implicit in her expression, but he shook his head before she could go on.

“Cheap. Cheap is what I want.”

Before everything, the fighting, the incident, the separation, he had forgotten what cheap was, and Leanne, privately schooled and consistently spoiled, had never known. “But I am cheap,” he thought and the knowledge settled on him like a dew, fresh and reviving. It made sense of the bars he liked to go to, the women he liked to meet, real women, not Leanne and her friends, who primped and groomed themselves as ardently as porn stars until even their sexes were waxed bare, but who in actuality, Jonah suspected, were repelled by the carnal.

* * *

Gert lived five kilometers out on a smallholding. The last half a kilometer took Jonah up a dirt path and over a cattle grid to a gate. Backpackers welcome was scrawled on a piece of metal and leave your prejudices behind. Jonah pushed his bike inside. Ahead the hillside rose in vivid paradisal green. Five horses hung their heads in a paddock, and as he watched, a family of ducks waddled up the hill and began tugging out blades of grass.

On the adjacent rise stood the encampment. Jonah followed the path toward it, down to a stream and then up again, his legs aching at the severity of the incline. The sun battered his bare head.

A skinny, shirtless guy (Gert?) was sleeping on the veranda, a large cloth printed with the gigantic face of Che Guevara acting as a sunscreen. Jonah was almost on him when the guy leapt up on his knobbled legs and pressed his hands into a prayer position.

“Velcome, stranger,” he said in a thick German accent.

Jonah smiled and extended his hand, but Gert, if it was Gert, sank cross-legged to the ground, his hands still pressed to his chest. He shut his eyes and began to hum a vibrant reverberation that sounded like a displaced hive of bees. Jonah watched him for a moment and then sat down. The veranda was cool under his legs, and besides Gert’s humming, the only sound he heard was the sibilant rush of the wind and the occasional bark of a baboon. He waited, ten, twenty minutes, but still Gert hummed on, so eventually he left and wandered back down the hill to his bike. He brought it up as close to the house as he could, then carried his belongings the rest of the way. Gert was still humming, so he removed his biker gear and changed into a pair of shorts. He found an outdoor faucet from which he had a drink and washed his face and then went back and set up his tent. Gert did not move.

By 7 p.m. the sun was setting and Jonah had explored the whole property. He had walked into the forest, followed the stream up the hill, helped himself to some food in the kitchen, took a long and satisfying shit in the latrine hut, checked out the vegetable garden, and even repaired the chicken wire on one side of it. The whole place was derelict; everything was falling apart, and wattle trees covered much of the hillside, but with its views out to the distant mountains, it was also stupefyingly beautiful.

At 7:05, just as the sun sank for good, Gert leapt to his feet, darted into the kitchen, and emerged waving two beers, one of which he tossed to Jonah.

“So what is your name, stranger?” he asked.

Jonah tugged on the ring pull of his can and took a sip. “Jonah Blackwood.” Despite the beer, his mouth was dry. He had not said his name aloud in weeks. It no longer even sounded like his name.

“Nice.” Gert nodded sagely. His hair hung to his waist. “Appropriate. Ze man who gets eaten by a vhale. Have you been eaten by a vhale, Jonah Blackvood?”

“Not that I know of.” Stars were beginning to emerge from the velvety sky above. Jonah took another sip. Gert was obviously insane. That fat woman who recommended this place should maybe have warned him, but even as he thought it, he realized he didn’t care. Eaten by a whale. Maybe he had been.

* * *

Jonah stayed. During the days he worked on the land, cutting down wattles, or building. Sometimes he drove Gert’s bakkie into town to pick up food, and beer, lots of beer. Each trip to the store required a certain inflexibility of heart, for as soon as his feet touched the earth, out they would come like flies, the clay-animal sellers, shouting out ridiculous prices for their creations. It would take all his effort to ignore them, swing his groceries into the bakkie, and climb in. Gert, on the other hand, slept, or meditated, or hummed, but as soon as the sun set each evening, he would head into the kitchen and come out with whatever drinks Jonah had stocked the fridge with, and they would sit on the veranda and talk. At least Gert talked and Jonah listened. Gert told him about Namibia. And how he had fought in Angola in the ’70s. About the time he threw a brick through the windscreen of a police bakkie and ended up doing time. Jonah heard about Gert’s addiction to LSD and how Gert had traveled in India and fallen in love and how the girl dumped him and how he came clean and found inner peace. Oh, and Gert had once been Mensa tested and was a genius, and that he believed in ghosts and reincarnation and that he was writing a book on all this shit and it was going to be mega. Gert told him all this but never asked any questions, and so, besides his name, Jonah never told Gert a thing. He did not mention Leanne or his blue-eyed daughters or his former life. And by not mentioning it, it almost ceased to be real. It, and all its attendant handmaidens of despair.

* * *

He was late getting Leanne. He was always late and she was always pissed off about it. He hooted outside the door and she came tripping out, her legs long and brown beneath her skirt. “Nice dress,” he said and then, “Is it new?” and when she didn’t answer, he said, “Flip, Leanne, you can’t spend your whole fucking time buying clothes. Jeez. You need to get a life.”

“If I had a husband who gave me more of a life—who cared one iota for me—perhaps I wouldn’t have to satiate my neediness with shopping.”

He shook his head. There was no point in getting into an argument with Leanne. She was too good, too good at fighting and too good with words. He always came out the loser.

* * *

Three weeks into it, Gert offered him the place.

“Been here too long, man,” he said. “Meeting you has brought out my vanderlust. I can’t stop zinking about zat girl in Rajasthan. Maybe her husband has died. And zen,” he paused and lifted his arms up on either side of his face like a cadaverous vulture, “I can zvoop in.”

Jonah agreed. One extremely expensive motorcycle, his Rolex, and a call to Miss Jacobs in Jersey, who handled a small portfolio that Jonah had never bothered informing Leanne nor the taxman about, and voilà! Six wattle-invaded hectares in the middle of nowhere became his.

Gert departed the day the transaction was signed, Jonah’s biking gear flapping like a bin bag off his shoulders. Jonah drove down to the store and bought a bottle of wine. The clay guys clamored around him, shoving their sculptures in his face. “Look here, I live here now,” he told them. “I am not buying.”

“Local price, two rand hog.”

He shook his head, got back in the bakkie. “Two rand too much.”

* * *

They took the high road around the mountain. Leanne stared out of the window toward Table Bay. He found himself trying to frighten her—tearing into stops, driving way too close to the car in front of him, but she continued to ignore him.

At the Harveys’, in their pretentious apartment, with its designer furniture and African art and mind-blowing view of the sunset, he stood at the bar and drank steadily: rum and Cokes, while Leanne hooted with Patricia with her back to him the whole time and her glass conspicuously full of champagne. Waiters slipped through the crowd carrying platters of tiny canapés—slivers of fish, oysters. He made small talk when he had to.

At some point Peter took him aside and gave him the news. How because of the US economy, the Yanks were pulling out of the deal Jonah had spent the good part of a year structuring. “I know how hard you have worked on this,” Peter said, patting Jonah on the back. “Hell, man, I am sorry.”

Sorry. Two inane syllables that meant nothing. Jonah went back to the bar and got another drink. No one was on the terrace, so he headed outside. Below, where the Atlantic licked into the shore, a tiny curve of starlit beach emerged between the giant boulders. He suddenly wished to take Leanne down there, lay her on the shingle, and take her dress off. He wanted to put his head on those expensive breasts and go to sleep, watching the Southern Cross drown in the ocean.

* * *

His days took on a rhythm of their own. After breakfast he went out to do what he always did, cut down wattles. About twenty a day, depending on the size. The wattle dust coated his hands and caught in his throat and floated into the corners of his eyes and itched until he could barely see. Sometimes he swung the axe with his eyes closed, aware of how stupid that was but unable to stop himself. The sun rose mercilessly in the sky. His body, always aching now when he awoke, softened into the rhythm. The wattles tumbled at his feet.

By noon, the sun hung directly above him; his shadow burned down to nothing. He had to stop more frequently, get his breath. Under his fingers the skin on his back felt scalded; tiny shivers jiggered through his muscles. He could not stop for long. When he worked, his mind slowed down, became nothing more than an awareness, but when he stopped and looked up at the hillside, the overwhelming nature of his task would overtake him. Wattles sprouted everywhere, small ones, tall ones, defiant ones that seemed to shake their branches and their prolific seeds in the breeze; they seemed to invade during the night, spearing their taproots into the conceding earth. He was a fucking idiot and he knew it. Right to his bones. What man takes on a mountain? And then he would pick up his axe and start to work again, pushing his body through the heat, and stopping only to drink from a tin jug of water that one of the girls had brought down to him.

At lunchtime, Lena rang the bell on the veranda, and he laid down his axe and came up the hillside. He submerged his head under the faucet and sat down dripping at the table, tying his hair back with a piece of string. He would eat quickly, then head out again, until the sun was low over the ridge and his shadow fell spectral on the ground. And then one day the girls did not come in. Nor the next. He scavenged in the kitchen for what he could find, eating leftovers straight from the fridge and washing them down with wine. It was only when they returned and Lena demanded a Christmas bonus that he realized he had missed Christmas altogether. After dinner he went out and sawed off a branch of pine that he stood against the wall on the veranda. He had no paper, so he made a coronet of flowers that he laid on the top and thought of his girls, seven hundred miles away. Even God forgave the wicked in the Bible. But would Leanne, he wondered, ever be able to forgive him?

* * *

They left after midnight. Leanne skittered down the stairs in her heels. She was tipsy, more so than he had seen her in a long while, and for a moment his hope rose. But even inebriated she hadn’t forgot their status quo. All nukes armed.

He opened the car door and she fell inside. The shadow of the mountain spun above him. He got in the car and managed to start it, the key initially refusing to slide into the hole. When he squinted, his double vision of the road converged. He thought maybe Leanne should drive, but she was already asleep, her face ashen in the moonlight. He took the curves slowly; too slowly at first and then, worried he might be picked up, veered off into the backstreets. The harbor glinted below them, incandescent, every light quadrupled in his vision. The deal was off. He wanted to tell Leanne. No fucking deal. A whole year’s work. Bye bye bonus and thus the kids’ school fees and the mortgage. He never used the word “thus” in normal speech. He repeated it to himself a few times, thus thus thus.

At Snotnose’s intersection the light changed from green to red as he approached. He slowed down, looked around, and jumped the red because that is what everyone did at night. He was halfway through the intersection when he felt it, the bump, and then a sudden elevation of the wheels, front and back. Leanne sat up.

“Jonah, what the hell was that?”

“Don’t know.” He kept driving, slower now. “Think it was a cat.”

“A cat!” Leanne screeched. “Jonah! We have to go back! We can’t leave an injured cat lying there.”

“It probably wasn’t a cat.” He kept driving. “I think it was a piece of wood. Something that fell off a bakkie.”

* * *

“My nephew has died,” Lena announced one morning.

“God, Lena.” Her words brought him out of himself for a minute. “I am really sorry. How old was he?”

“Young,” Lena said. “He was hit by a bus.”

He looked up at her. She ran a feather duster along the back of a chair. “I must be with my family. I will not be back for a few days.”

“Of course. Of course.” Hit by a bus? Fuck. How old was this nephew?

“The other girls will also not be here.”

“Oh?”

“It is their nephew too who has died.”

“I didn’t realize you were all related?”

Lena cleared his plate and then poured him a cup of coffee. He drank it slowly, then went into the kitchen. The women were talking in isiXhosa that halted as soon as he came in. Andiswe’s face was streaked with tears. He gave them each fifty rand, which they put into their dresses without saying thank you.

* * *

At five o’clock when he came up to the house, the kitchen was empty, but Lena had left him a loaf of bread, and in the fridge he found a casserole with some of yesterday’s chicken. He sat on the deck and ate it with his dusty fingers, wiping the coagulated fat against the side of the dish. He felt drained to the bone, sucked dry. That poor kid. Was it Andiswe’s? He couldn’t stop thinking about her face, the way her tears had carved tracks through the white clay on her cheeks. For the first time in ages, he went to bed before sunset, the sky in the east still a light. He did not even have a beer.

* * *

Somehow they got home. Leanne veered up the stairs barefoot, bumping against the walls, and by the time he had locked up, she was already asleep, her new dress lying crumpled on the floor.

He crawled in beside her. Even with his eyes closed, the world spun. He kept seeing the harbor lights, the twisting road. And Peter saying, “Sorry, man.”

He tried to think of something good, like surfing, and then just as he slipped into the mist of sleep, another image danced before his eyes, illumination in the dark—a flash of powder blue.

* * *

When Leanne heard about the deal, she left him. That is how he remembered it anyway. Lovely Leanne, only for richer. But the truth, he knew, was different. Leanne left because she could no longer bear to look at him. And why should she? He could no longer bear to look at himself.

The day after the Harveys’ party, he drove into work, avoiding the intersection. He came back another way too. A month passed until he felt he could face it, and when he did another kid came up to the window, this one in a ragged T-shirt. He wound the window down and asked the boy if he knew the kid. The one with the blue jersey. The new boy cupped his hands. “No boy like that here,” he answered immediately. And then, pleading, “Money please.”

Jonah gave him a couple of coins and drove on.

* * *

He found himself drinking more and more. Leanne slept in the spare room. His route to work bloomed with agapanthus, their triumphant heads waving in the breeze, so he stopped going. They received a letter of foreclosure on the house, which he left on Leanne’s pillow. The motorbike was the last straw. When Leanne saw it parked in the driveway, sporting the dealer plates, she went berserk. He withstood her rage and let it flow over him, embalm him. The next day she was gone.

* * *

Saturday dawned. Down in the Xhosa village, they would be burying the boy. Jonah got up and looked at what he had done. The hillside was literally littered with stumps of wattle, hundreds of them, poking up through the grass. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with the urge not to work. It was like a wave being sucked back; one minute he was staggering in three feet of water, the next there was damp sand beneath his feet. He took a shower under the fig tree, combed his hair, put on a clean shirt and shorts, and set off on a brisk walk into the village. At the Lennox Inn the dining room was already open, and he sat at a table outside and ate an enormous breakfast and drank three cups of coffee. He took his time. His table was surrounded with hydrangea, the cabbagey violet blooms like old ladies’ bathing caps. The sky was white with heat. He felt as though he was sitting inside a gigantic blind eye.

The clay-animal guys were already grouping around the supermarket. He went in and bought some apples, ham, cheese, and bread, and as he paid he noticed the pay phone at the back of the shop. He had some coins in his pocket, so he went up to it and, before he could stop himself, stuffed them into the slot and dialed Leanne’s parents’ number.

She picked up on the second ring. “The Harrison residence.”

“Lee?” His voice barely came out. It was a croak. Something primitive.

Silence echoed down the line. Inside his chest his heart hammered like it might burst. And then he heard it. A muffled sob. His name.

“Gran wants to know who it is, Mom,” yelled another voice (Kiera’s?) further away.

“Lee,” he said again, firmer this time. “Oh God, Lee. I am sorry. I am so fucking sorry.”

* * *

When he stepped outside it was like coming out of cave; he could barely see. How could the world change so much in the space of a few minutes? He leaned against the wall, caught his breath. Over the road, the clay guys tended their fire. As usual they tried their luck. “Ten rand hog today!”

To all of their surprise, including his own, he strolled over. Little animals ranging from an inch to six inches high stood drying in the ashes of the wood fire. He handed over the money and bought a tiny carved pig with sturdy grass running the ridge of its spine, and carried it for at least fifty yards up the road before first an ear fell off and then a tiny leg. So Jonah Blackwood went into the forest, knelt, and laid the animal gently beneath a fern, its limb beside it. That way it might run off into the trees, he thought, and return to what it once was. Clay.


Sam Grieve was born in Cape Town and lived in Paris and London prior to settling down in Connecticut with her family. She has a BA from Brown University and an MA in English from King’s College London. She has worked as a writer, librarian, bookseller and antiquarian book dealer. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in A cappella Zoo, Cactus Heart, Grey Sparrow Journal, Wild Violet Literary Magazine, Sanskrit and PANK.


Read Same Grieve’s comments on Tom Graham’s “Seven Miles Deep.”

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Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
The effective use of language and imagery in “Blackwood” brings the reader immediately into the story, engaging our senses and desire to learn more about our protagonist, his struggles and his life. We never cease to be intrigued by his course of action, the journey he is on, the search for his identity and self-worth. We want at once to cheer him on in his new life but also strike him for letting his family go. Engaging the reader throughout and creating these mixed emotions in our hearts and minds makes this story a wonderful success.

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Comments on this story by Jenny Williams, author of “The Pie Shell”
In “Blackwood,” Sam Grieve’s stunning use of imagery carries the reader to a remote and beautiful landscape near the Amatola Mountains of South Africa. There, to the delight of this reader, Jonah Blackwood’s complex story reveals itself slowly and offers no easy answers. It is the death of his servants’ young nephew that finally jolts Blackwood from his Sisyphean stupor and allows him to reach once more toward his own humanity. I found immense satisfaction in taking Blackwood’s journey with him and piecing together his story from the series of flash scenes deftly presented by Grieve.




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