My father was dying.
The sun was also dropping in the west, off to my left as I drove up the Great North Road. The tawny grasses were turning to russet in that mid-afternoon light. I had been driving all day, my eyes were scratchy with distance and dust.
I was looking forward to a coffee stop at the Capricorn Monument, its defaced obelisk needling the bouldery ridge north of Polokwane. I always stopped there on my drives to and from Zimbabwe, I liked its elevation and its dishevelled solitude. Now, though, I wondered if stopping would feel disloyal: I should keep racing on, in case I didn’t get there in time. But I would have to pause and recharge somewhere.
As it happened, I had to stop sooner than I anticipated. I had no time even to take my foot off the pedal as two large birds exploded out of the long grass of the verge. One swerved safely away, but the second slammed into my bakkie’s radiator grille. It jammed there, I could see a wing fluttering in the rush of air above the curve of the bonnet.
I hate hitting birds; swearing and already remorseful, I found a place to pull over, put on my hat and went round to the front of the vehicle. The air was dead still, heated almost to blood temperature; the Capricorn ridge was visible a couple of kilometres to the north.
It was a sand-grouse, I guessed as I eased its still-warm body from between the cracked ribs of the plastic grille. It was so beautiful, the cooling feathers so exquisitely patterned in subtle fawns and reds, dark barring and pale freckles. Heavy at heart, I laid its limpness gently down amongst the grasses and tiny flowers and ants, away from the hard road, there where it would be gradually broken down and absorbed back into the hidden materia of the swirling world.
I crouched there a while longer, wondering about the other grouse, the one that had evaded death. I wondered if sand-grouse mated for life, whether it would grieve for its mysteriously disappeared mate, or whether it would quickly forget and just fly onward, calling.
I straightened up only when I heard a vehicle draw up behind mine and toot its horn. Not a policeman wondering what the hell I was doing there – a civilian car, someone looking for directions, perhaps. The passenger-side window was sliding down as I approached. A new-model RAV, iridescent blue: an up-and-coming pretentious Somebody, I was guessing as I stooped to look inside.
There was only one person, the driver – a large woman resplendent in a dress of shimmering gold with purple trim, a matching doek massed on her head, sparkling wrist-bangles offsetting the dark gloss of polished skin. Seriously up-and-coming.
“Hi,” I said, “What’s up?”
“I am sorry to disturb you,” she said rather formally, and then just stopped, her hands still on the wheel. Her speech was accented but precise, but I thought her cheeks were shaking slightly; I wondered if she was ill, or about to have a heart-attack, though she could not be older than her mid-forties.
“That’s okay,” I said, “are you lost?”
“No, no. I – I was driving from Johannesburg, from Soweto. I went there to identify my son’s body. He was stabbed in Soweto.” She went on in a rush: “I got this far and I suddenly just had to talk to someone, and I saw you stopped here, and I just thought to myself, I can talk to this man.”
I momentarily considered the deep irony in this, here and now in contemporary South Africa – that an evidently rich and perhaps highly connected black woman should choose a stranger – and not so much just a stranger, but a stranger who must have looked like the archetypal Boer: white bakkie, broad-brimmed leather hat, grizzled beard and pinkish skin, khaki shirt and shorts, agricultural boots.
But here I was, starting to make noises of commiseration which seemed in my own ears muffled, impossible to make sound sincere, while she gripped the steering-wheel and began to wail hoarsely, “Why my first-born, why me, why, he is my last, I ask God, why me?” She sobbed for a bit and, in tears myself, I found tissues in her glove-box. She extended a hand vaguely in my direction; I took it in mine and held it while she sniffed, and when we had mopped up a little and regained some control, I began to ask her questions, not so much about her son, but whatever seemed to keep her talking and distracted. Gradually, in fragments and loops, her story emerged.
She was the wife of a powerful provincial Chief who, in the way of such things in this country, had not only garnered considerable clout under customary law, but had cornered extensive business interests – hence her ostentatious, power-woman outfit and vehicle. He had given her three sons. One had died very young of some unspecified medical complication; the middle one had been killed in his teens in a car accident, through no fault of his own, not far from where we now sat. And now her eldest, still in his twenties, had been murdered in some grimy bar brawl in Soweto. No wonder she was wondering why she had been singled out for such appalling loss.
Her husband the chief had not gone with her to identify the body. In fact, he had long abandoned her to her own devices, blaming her for his sons’ deaths, her affections displaced by two new, younger wives. So she had branched out on her own, shamelessly using his money and status to get herself a degree in tourism management, thence to work with the provincial tourism authority – and indeed there were bundles of brochures on the passenger seat below our clasped hands. More, she was also headmistress of a junior school, attached to which was an orphanage she had founded.
She was, in short, an extraordinary person, and beneath the ravages of her recent loss I could feel her driven energy, her pragmatic intelligence, her compassion.
Yet all her wealth and influence, her personal power and initiative, could not shield her from the savagery of the ordinary and the arbitrary – the domestic strife and the accumulated, inexplicable losses.
“Why me?” she cried again. “I pray to God to give me a reason, but I cannot get any answer.”
And I had no answer for her, beyond my own belief in a universe ruled not by an inscrutable god, but simply by variable degrees of systemic chaos. We are all as vulnerable to mischance as the sand-grouse subsiding into the grass behind me, always hoping that order will prevail, always to be astonished by the mindless irruption of the unpredictable, like the cancer that was ravaging my father’s body and mind.
I didn’t voice any of that, just softly kneaded the lady’s pudgy hand until she had talked herself out and felt ready to drive on.
My back had grown hot with sun and stiff with leaning through the car window.
“You are a kind man,” she said, “I knew when I saw you there I could talk with you. Jesus has sent you to me.”
I didn’t learn her name. I left her my card, not expecting her to make contact again.
I somehow didn’t feel like stopping at the Capricorn monument after that, but pressed on into the reddening evening light, hoping I would get through the border in decent time, and perhaps even reach my father before he died.