Per Contra

Summer 2007



Plain Text Version - Fiction

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Postcards From November by Liesl Jobson


Sheís quiet. Her father talks. She laughs again, saying, French on Monday.


oko oko kkkkk ok ok




Weíve been in the car for six hours, Linda, driving the Mercedes, Mvuyo, who sings haunting Zulu hymns, and me. Weíre travelling to Wits Rural, on the border of the Kruger Park. The light is falling over the dense thorn trees and my earlier panic returns.


Today my ex drove her to Pietermaritzburg, to find a boarding school. A place where sheíll be safe, heíd said. A place away from me. I hope she hates the city, that she wonít get a place. But maybe sheís already romping through a lacrosse game with Enid Blyton, sharing a tuck box with Harry Potter.


Iím fantasising revenge on my return. Do I have the nerve to run my keys along his paintwork?  Might I bribe the petrol joggie to Ďaccidentallyí put petrol in his diesel tank? Black mambas exist in this area. How hard is it to catch one? Could I turn a poisonous snake loose in his car boot one weekend when Kateís with me?


I ask Linda to stop by an abandoned farm stall. It rises, rusted ochre tin and broken glass, beside the road. I say Iím carsick, but itís not that. Itís hate churning. I wish I could vomit my evil fantasies out. I want to unsay what I said last night when a helicopter wound overhead above our house, round and round. I said, I hope that helicopter is searching for the man that just murdered your father. I want to stop wounding my child. I want to stop feeling like a mouse dangling in the claws of an owl.


We pass a welcome sign: Jesus Loves You, Hoedspruit Ministeries. My tongue slithers over the ugly words forming in my mouth. I should swallow them back, but I spit them out: Heís everywhere, isnít he? As soon as itís said, Iím ashamed, wishing it unsaid.


After arriving in the campsite, Iím taken to my bungalow. Mvuyo points out the gap below the door. Heís been here before. He says, Roll up a towel to wedge against the door. Tomorrow I'll show you the leopard spoor.




We eat in the rondavel. Afterwards I check my teeth for lentil and spinach and, finding none, poke the black bubble on my gum between my lower front teeth. Pamela, our camp co-ordinator, cooks Sunshine Tart in the dark communal kitchen. Whatís in it, I ask. The table is sticky. I wish I had wine. Secret family recipe, she says.


Itís delicious, even though it tastes strongly of paprika, turmeric and mother-in-lawís tongue, our only three spices. The kitchen has mosquito nets for windows and we cook in turns. Everybody uses the same three spices for each meal. Iíll be glad when I can cook in my own kitchen again. My table is properly clean; my kitchen cloths are washed and ironed. My own dishes sparkle because the sink hasnít got a permanently scuzzy ring about it.


At supper I was glad of the dim globes hanging from the thatched roof because I couldnít rightly see what was beetle and what was sunshine in the pie. The fridge lists dangerously to one side, its door no longer closing properly. A notice taped on the freezer section warns residents: KEEP DOORS AND WINDOWS CLOSED. MONKEYS AND TREE SQUIRRELS STEAL FOOD.


If I had wine, Iíd worry less about the mouse that ripped open the mieliemeal or the dead snake I saw on the road outside my bungalow. Perhaps its mate will be back to find it.


Another notice informs residents that this is a low-risk malaria area. Itís the cool season now, rainy and humid, but not hot. I canít take the anti-malaria medicine. It makes me woozy and nauseous and I canít think straight for weeks.


The Dutch medical student, who is treating AIDS patients at the hospital in Acornhoek, tells me itís probably safe. She says Ďdayí for Ďtheyí and Ďdatí for Ďthatí. Her voice swoops and bounces like the buck that scamper for cover when disturbed. I want to listen to her talk forever, but when we hear the hoo-whoop hoo-whoop of the hyena, everyone falls silent, listening in awe.


Before leaving for camp I saw a dentist. He said the bubble on my gum is not a malignant tumour, just a blood blister, caused by plaque thatís calcified between my teeth. He says I must floss to dislodge the plaque and the blister will burst and disappear.


I scratch the red welt on my ankle where I slapped a mosquito left a bloody smear. I hope the Dutch girl is right.




1)         Allay the patientís anxiety. Stay as calm as possible.


The ground in the camp is dusty but the trees are green. The tags identifying them in Latin have rusted and I donít know their English names. The bird calls are unfamiliar too, sounding like hammers on anvils, rusted hinges, rasping, grating. My daughter said I must be on the look out for the yellow-billed hornbill. She said they studied it in school. An insect flies into my eye. I wash it out with saline from the Dutch medic. I canít be bothered to read the bird book after that. My eye keeps watering. I ignore the bird search.


2)         Shock can be more toxic than the bite itself. Deaths have been reported where patients have been bitten by harmless snakes.


At 9 am I wind along the road towards the campís exit under a hazy sky, wearing sunglasses. My windows are closed but dust swirls though the air vent, along with dried out seed husks, dead beetles, shards of twig and grass. I snap the vents shut then cross the dry riverbed where snakes catch frogs. Iíve seen the little popeyed frogs at my door, nearly stepped on one in the dark.


3)         Not all snakes are poisonous.


The gap below the door to my rondavel is big enough to let through a snake, but not a frog. Before I enter, I rattle the doorknob, jiggle the door. In case. Iím scared to look under my bed. Before I put my shoes on in the morning, I shake them out. I even check the gloves of the pot holder in the kitchen, in case something has fallen from the grass roof. This wariness feels like being married again.


4)         Not all poisonous snakes are fully charged with venom.


I drive in second gear, watching for buck among the thorn trees, afraid one might leap out. On the road outside the camp, I speed up, plug my earphones in, dial my ipod, looking down. I want to listen to something calming. When I look up again, the road is curving sharply. A cow is meandering across the road. Itís too late to brake; I speed up, swerving around it. Just beyond, I pull over, shaking, sweating. The Cell Block Tango from Chicago pipes through the earphone:


He had it coming. He had it coming. He only had himself to blame.


If youíd a been there. If youíd a seen it. I betcha you would a done the same!


5)         Even snakes fully charged with venom do not always inject a lethal dose.


I recognise the trees and flowers that grow beside the public buildings as I drive into Hoedspruit: poinsettia, jacaranda, cannas and frangipani, their heady scents, the violently coloured flowers with poisonous milk that flowed from their picked stems. They grew in our Pinetown garden when I was a child. There were green mambas in those trees too. I watched the gardener kill one once. It writhed for hours after heíd decapitated it with a panga.


6)         Reassurance lowers blood pressure, reducing palpitations, tremors, sweating and rapid breathing, hence reducing the speed of absorption of toxins.


We sit, my friends and I, on their patio overlooking the bush, sipping lemonade. Theyíre the new doctors in town, a husband and wife team from Joburg. He does the general practise; she does the pathology and womenís medicine. He asks about my eye. I dismiss it. Let me look, he says. I turn to him, he holds open the lid. Itís infected already, he says. If itís not better by tomorrow come in to the practice. Iíll set you up with antibiotic drops.


7)         Some patients get infections or allergic reactions from so-called harmless snakes.


On the way back to the camp I drive slower, mindful of cows. My ex calls. His initials flash on the cell phone. I donít want to answer, but Iím too afraid not to. Heís in Pietermaritzburg looking at church schools. He says, donít shoot me, Iím just the messenger. Kate has asked me to call you. Sheís sitting right here. She wants me to tell you that sheís really terrified of you. She says you make her feel guilty about wanting to go to boarding school. Now Iím just the messenger, rememberÖ


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