Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
Miss Beatrice’s ostrich farm was so big you could get lost on it. Like all the other big farms in the South African Karoo, each ostrich had his own ten acres and the Guaranteed Breeders, a husband and wife ostrich, had nearly thirty acres. There in the distance, almost a day away, in the summer of 1911, was Mr. Jacobs watching his birds lie down and never get up. He rode out to Highlands and Miss Beatrice was busy with the men building those bungalows and all her ostriches were standing up, as if nothing was wrong. She bent down to knock something into the ground and he could see her breast under the convict shirt and he went blood-red, in front of all those volkies. They say he was a religious man and maybe he prayed something to his God, Jehovah.
The dust started to sparkle and pop and he told Miss Beatrice he had to go inside for some water and perhaps the last of the morning coffee. They were walking and their legs were bouncing and light as if the ground was one big trampoline.
Inside the house, Mr. Jacobs thought he was going blind but when his eyes came right, Miss Beatrice’s breast was fluttering right by his elbow and it was like someone pushing him overboard. His lips found her hair and he breathed her smell which was like smashed grass. Her eyes lifted, and he nearly drowned all over again. Where were they? Was it the bedroom or behind the door or there on the floor in the living room? Their arms were pulling at each other the way it is when a wave smashes you into the sand and everything goes upside down all at once. For a moment, they looked at each other and remembered that they were in the house in the middle of the day. Miss Beatrice saw where the top of Mr. Jacobs’s hair ended and the shape of the curtain behind him and behind that, a tree. But then he moved into her and she heard her first scream and then it was laughing and crying, so loud that she thought Nomsa could hear.
Water on the ostriches’ heart is why he came but that’s not what happened. There was water somewhere else only it wasn’t water. It was more like fire than anything else. I’m surprised they didn’t burn a hole right through the floor. It could have been the muti or it could have been the air on the veld early in the morning that touches your skin and makes you want everything. Mr. Jacobs tried to go but that everything pulled him back on to the floor, Miss Beatrice riding him across the little Karoo as if she was chasing ten thousand lost ostriches. They were chasing and chasing and chasing and finally they found them, high up near the stars, on top of a lost koppie that was made out of her rib and his rib woven together. That’s when he saw his own God who told him this was not his neighbor’s wife, this was an angel, a messenger to tell him that the Messiah was finally coming. He could hear the hoof-beats and her breath and the house swung above him like a lamp and when he woke up she was a fairy, so light and thin and golden and she gave him some pancakes and coffee. He stumbled out of the house and the sun burned. At the end of the day, he was back in his house with his wife and his daughters in their frills and there was more water on the heart. More birds lying down and not getting up.
What he had seen before, was feathers, pounds and pounds of prime whites, so full, so perfect that they filled his house with precious things. Now all he could see was Miss Beatrice, those moons of hers staring into him, her hands dry and light and burning all over his body. He blinked and shook his head, and she didn’t move or step away. She stood there, like someone on a stamp, and the stamp was stuck to the middle of his forehead and he couldn’t get it off. He lay down on the sofa from England and his wife and daughters stared over him but he couldn’t see them. The best he could do was cover the stamp with his hand.
While he lay there, some of his birds, the ones who couldn’t get up, laid their necks along the ground like the stalks of broken flowers, and died. It rained like mad that night and in the morning they plucked the feathers of the dead birds. They plucked them and then washed them to get the mud off and the feathers were the most beautiful feathers Mr. Jacobs and his family had ever seen. They were so white, so long, so perfectly even on both sides of the shaft. When you picked one up, it moved like the softest of soft winds. Mr. Jacobs got up, and he was the Ostrich King again. The stamp on his forehead with Beatrice on it had fallen into the cracks of the English sofa.
That morning there were bright puddles all over the farms and tiny flowers all over the veld. Opslag, my ouma used to say. What comes up after rain. You know that there are going to be lots of ostrich eggs, because the ostriches eat the flowers, and waltz from happiness. The Guaranteed Breeders do what they’re supposed to do and six weeks later you have a whole crop of little ones.
Were there more eggs at Highlands? Or was the Ostrich King still the king? Nobody counted the eggs but I think Miss Beatrice was winning. Still, the feathers from the birds with water on the heart broke all records at the feather-auction. So Miss Beatrice rode out day after day and counted how many birds she had and it came out to one hundred and fifty-eight.
Was she thinking about Mr. Jacobs while she was counting? Did she see his dark-brown eyes hot as treacle, the treacle burning and pouring into her bones? Somewhere between the seventy-fifth bird and the ninety-third? Or did she see him all the time, sitting inside every ostrich’s eye, on his throne, feathers in his crown, Ostrich King of the world?
I think she was laughing and crying, burying her husband, Mr. Henry, in her heart. At last she believed Mr. Henry was dead and she forgot about wanting him to come back and see everything she had done. For an instant she remembered fighting with him and the broken furniture and the way he fled from her and then it was gone, like someone blowing out a candle. And into that dark, dark room, stepped Mr. Jacobs who was dark himself, not as black as a kaffir, but darker than all the men who had kissed her hand and laid their arms around her waist. He was like a bruise inside her, something soft and purple and aching and she wanted him to come back. That wanting made her ride faster and harder, from kraal to kraal, counting and re-counting bird after bird, getting them mixed up and counting some twice, even three times until her head was aching and she wanted to lie down and never get up.
The twisted trees and the tumbleweeds made her angry and for the first time she wanted green, and the coolness of England. She was hearing old voices, her father and brothers, and what they said about Jews, the men in particular. Something about pointed shoulder-blades and loose, big hands and she was trying to remember if Mr. Jacobs had either. But all she could remember was a black circle, like water going down the drain, except here in South Africa it went the wrong way. Which way was that? She almost spun off the back of her horse just thinking about it.
She remembered her corsets, empty without her, and how they kept and held you and stopped you from flying off things. That’s when it came to her, the idea of the day. She would go home and wash up and put on a corset and one of her dresses, the green silk with flowers, and she would get September and the cart and he would take her to Mr. Jacobs’ farm but she wouldn’t see him, she would visit his wife and his daughters and they would eat finger biscuits. The whirling would go away sitting there in his house, sitting on his English sofa, sitting in her corset and gloves, drinking tea.
Nothing was right, she found out, when she looked into her cupboard. Inside her corset, at the waist part, was a spider’s nest the size of a hotnot’s head except it was white not brown, with sticks in it like the arms and legs of tiny stick people trying to get out of a very thick net. It hung there and didn’t move. She tiptoed away and looked for her green dress. When she found it, it looked like slime but she put it on anyway. Something tore at the waist. The dress fitted and didn’t fit in very different places because without the corset her body was smaller at the top and bigger in the middle. Her maid, Nomsa, tried to button all the pearl buttons but some popped off and rolled into the cracks between the floor-boards. There were tears in the skirt like trap-doors and she remembered that night when she glided in the veld. All those thorn-bushes must have picked at her like nasty little hands.
There were shoes to go with the dress. Moss, she thought, when she looked at them. Stones that don’t roll gather moss. When she put her left foot into the dark-green shoe, something crunched at the toe. She shook the shoe and a squashed cockroach, a big one, dropped to the floor.
I would have given up and cried. I would have poured myself a long gin and tonic, especially for the nest. Sometimes those hairy spiders, tarantulas, sit up near the ceiling and my husband, Jack, has to scoop them down with a broom and I won’t be able to go into the room for days without shaking.
Miss Beatrice didn’t care. She probably laughed at all the goggas. That’s who she was. She threw the cockroach out of the window because if you leave them on the floor all the ants come. And then she put on the left shoe. The right one she shook first, before she put it on. Nomsa gave her an orange doek from her head which unravelled into a sash to cover the tear around her waist. She didn’t look like Miss Beatrice from England, she looked more like a hotnot, with that doek around her middle. To make things even worse, she had a farmer’s tan, with brown forearms and hands, and white, white shoulders, and that head on top, almost bald like an ostrich.
The trip took almost the whole day and by the time she got there she was covered with dust like icing sugar except it was brown. On her head she wore one of Henry’s floppy white hats and that was brown too from the dust and her sweat and the sun. They unharnessed the cart and September went to the back of the house, to the kitchen. There were long, thin trees like soldiers and then there was the front door, an oak door from England with a huge brass knocker. Miss Beatrice dropped the metal against metal and after a few minutes the door opened and Mrs. Jacobs was there, staring. She smelled like roses and her hair was wispy and crispy and her eyes were strict like a teacher’s. Miss Beatrice heard her father and brothers and out came her goldest voice, the fox-hunting voice, the mistress of manor and servants. It floated like a bell and Mrs. Jacobs just about fell to her knees. What a pleasure, a wonderful pleasure and surprise, not to mention an honor, she was singing.
Miss Beatrice was inside, just where she had planned to be and instead of the whirling there was drumming, something drumming between her legs, because he was there or he had been there and anytime soon he’d be back. Mrs. Jacobs took her hat and the dust fell everywhere like a blessing. Miss Beatrice was gliding and talking and now she was sitting on the English sofa where he’d been lying. She could feel the heat coming up from the chintz-covered pillows. Between the cabbage flowers and the leaves and the baskets there was something simmering. She leaned against the back of the sofa, just where his elbow had grazed the material, when he had covered the stamp, that stamp with her on it.
All the daughters came in. Bertha, the youngest girl with buck teeth and kroes hair in a sailor suit, then Goldie, an odd one with freckles and red hair, dressed to the nines in something very tight at the bust, very purple. The last one was Rachel, who was the most beautiful, except for the fact that she had a long nose. But her hair was right, pitch-black and straight and her skin was pinkish and her eyes kept on shining, not like Miss Beatrice’s moons, more like black treacle. Her pa’s eyes.
That’s when the throbbing moved from Miss Beatrice’s legs to her head and her throat dried up and all that fancy talking she was doing came to a dead stop. And Mrs. Jacobs ran out of the room like a mad dog was biting her heels to get Miss Beatrice, to get that English lady, not a lady’s lady, but still a lady, something to drink. I would have taken ten whiskeys, thank you very much, and I’m sure I would want some more, even. The maid came back with a tea-tray and Mrs. Jacobs fluttering behind, getting more and more nervous by the minute, especially when she saw Bertha and Goldie and Rachel talking and waving their hands about and laughing as if they had never been happier. Miss Beatrice looked tired, draped against the back of the sofa, the stamp finally come to life but still flat. The girls were talking about patterns and dresses and materials. What did Miss Beatrice like and where did she get that unusual green dress. It was so … Different. And the moss shoes. Like shoes out of a fairy tale. And who cut her hair? They were all pulling their hair away from their faces, turning to each other and wondering what they would look like with very short hair. Chatterboxes, Mrs. Jacobs called them and she sent them to get their father.
They didn’t get too far, not even out of the front door, because he was coming home anyway, still dizzy from Miss Beatrice, ready to take one of those headache powders. Of course when Mr. Jacobs saw her sitting right there on the sofa there was a giant thunder clap but nobody admitted they heard it. Miss Beatrice even raised herself up a little, her hands to her ears and Mr. Jacobs stepped back and touched the wall as if it would help him. The daughters were quiet, being seen and not heard because their pa was there which was a pity because I can tell you Miss Beatrice could have used their words and their giggles to fill up the room. But none of that kind of thing happened. It was Mrs. Jacobs, the hostess, who asked about the drive and the ostriches and Highlands and if there was any news of Mr. Henry. Her voice was crooked-sounding, and then to cover it up, Mr. Jacobs started huffing and puffing about the birds and the plucking and when to pluck and how to pluck and pluck this and pluck that. Which plucking was Miss Beatrice at? The first or the second, the prime whites or the tails? Or the stumps? Because he knew a thing or two about plucking. He could help when it came time. Oh, yes, oh, yes, Mrs. Jacobs chimed in. My husband is the Ostrich King. Isn’t that funny?
He looked like the Devil, Miss Beatrice thought, his cheeks red from the sun, his eyes big and dark, that hair as kroes as a hotnot’s. He was walking towards her and she felt herself spinning again, and rolling, just like a tumbleweed. She got up. She had to. She could almost touch his jacket, his sleeve, but she didn’t. She looked down by mistake, right there between his legs. It was bulky, like a parcel. Now she was scared and her knees were loose. Mrs. Jacobs was on her left side, and she felt her breath, like roses and tea, and she wanted to be sick.
She knew that he knew, and he changed suddenly, into gentleness, and told Rachel to take her outside. Miss Beatrice needs some air. She was out on the stoep and Rachel had taken her arm and the farm lay in front of them like a village.
The villagers were ostriches and although there was water on the heart most of them looked big and healthy and the fences had six wires and the sneezewood poles stood in the right places, every 400 yards or so. The land rolled on over low hills and the birds strutted in the distance as if they were on holiday. There was the incubating shed, on the left, and the plucking kraal behind it and you could just see the plucking box if you squinted. You could smell soap and the old hotnot women were by the stone dam washing the prime whites and fluffing them and they looked like clouds that had fallen out of the sky. This was a kingdom, like the old Zulu kingdoms except there were birds not kaffirs in the kraals. Miss Beatrice was jealous. Highlands was a funny long farmhouse and her birds were smaller and not so proud and picked in the dirt more like chickens. A cloud went over her heart, like one of those dirty feathers before they were washed. All that seething and longing for more of what she and Mr. Jacobs had chased was now anger, hot as tin roofs. How dare he. A Jew. Not an Englishman, not even a Boer. How could he. Who let him.
Rachel wasn’t a farm-girl. She was holding her nose and Miss Beatrice wanted to smack her, but she looked like a clown with those pink cheeks and round eyes. The girl slipped an arm around her waist and Miss Beatrice shook it away. Rachel looked hurt and Miss Beatrice swayed a little, pretending she was sick. Perhaps she could say a tarantula bit her, while she was sitting on the English sofa. It fell on her from the ceiling, big as a mouse and bit her between the legs, right on her shoppie. Shoppie was what my grannie called it, the grannie who came on the boat from England, who lived in the streets and was a Cockney girl. The other one was my ouma, who wore kappies and made melktert and koeksusters. In the Boer War they would have killed each other, starting at the top with the eyes.
Should she dance, Miss Beatrice thought? That’s what you’re supposed to do when the spider bites. So she hopped around a little and shouted tarantula, tarantula, it’s so terribly sore. Rachel grabbed her hand and spun her around and suddenly they were dancing like mad in the dust, dancing a hole in the ground. The ostriches stopped looking for things to eat and just stared. Maybe one of them even started waltzing, just to keep Miss Beatrice and Rachel company. At first, the girl and the woman were willow trees in a storm and then they were little fish darting and popping out of the water. Then they were seed-pods and they were hollow and empty inside, with things clattering and clanging right down to their knees. They were shaking and falling, shaking and laughing and suddenly they crashed down into the dust. That spider, Rachel was gasping, it bit me too. It lives in the chandelier.
Wild, wilder than me, Miss Beatrice was thinking as she caught Rachel’s eye, blacker than black. She got up and tried to dust herself but bits of her dress came off and you could see her skin underneath. She covered herself with her hands but it didn’t help and Rachel ran to the house to get something for her. She came running back with her father’s shirt because she had seen Miss Beatrice in town dressed like a kaalvoet klonkie. Miss Beatrice tied it around her waist to cover the holes because she couldn’t put it on, no she couldn’t. She couldn’t be in the place where his arms had been, where his heart was, where his shoulder blades lay. So it sat like a snake around her waist, like the girl’s arm, only thicker.
Everything was wrong, and she wanted to go home right away. The way back was long and the sun was sliding already. September was sitting on a stone behind the kitchen, smoking a pipe and talking to the maids, Nonnie and Sarah. They bobbed their heads, and laughed and Miss Beatrice was hot and cold all at once because of the doek around her waist and Mr. Jacobs’s shirt and the secret that was striped all over her skin. Rachel was still with her but she was busy worrying about the dirt on her skirt and the mess she was in and what her mother would say not to mention her father. She slipped into the house and was gone. September! Miss Beatrice scared herself, her voice was so raw. We have to go. September winked at the sun and tapped his pipe on the stone. He lifted himself up from the shoulders and Miss Beatrice smelled woodsmoke and tobacco and sweat.
Thank you for having me, she was supposed to say, to Mrs. Jacobs. Thank you for the tea. When she looked at the house all she saw was Mr. Jacobs’s body, the sandstone walls the color of his hands, the roof as black as his hair. No thank you, she whispered, feeling the dust in her mouth. She couldn’t walk in that door. It led straight to the engine-room. His heart.
September brought out the horses and they were still tired from before. So they watered them, brushed them, rubbed aloes on their legs. Miss Beatrice was singing, There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier, who wandered far away and soldiered far away … and September hummed something very old. By the time they were finished, all harnessed up and ready to go, the sun had melted into a red pool behind the thorn trees.
They climbed into the cart and Miss Beatrice looked back at the house with the lamps all lit and Mrs. Jacobs waving from the window, and she knew that she had burned something down. She was sorry but glad because her old world was gone and the whole animal was finally out. The women had seen her and they wouldn’t be quiet and whether they knew or they didn’t, she had walked in and walked out of there and nothing was the same anymore. It was the day she broke her sister’s arm all over again.
This night was different than the night she had floated. It was moonless and star-pocketed and the lamp on their cart made a circle that jiggled. A lynx stepped into the circle and stared. September clicked and breathed in and the lynx disappeared. Miss Beatrice heard hissing. Snakes? Her word floated like a bubble and September popped it. The sky, he said. The sky is flail of hunters and the hissing and chasing is their hunting. Miss Beatrice looked up. Each star was louder than the next. Orion was bellowing and the Lion and the Little Dog up there were panting. The Southern Cross was in a sweat and the chase kept getting louder and louder, hoof-beats coming closer and closet How do you know? Miss Beatrice asked September. Ons is die eerste mense, he said. We are the first people. Ouma Boesman said. She prayed for me. She wanted me to be strong and brave, like a star. She told me why the ostrich doesn’t fly. The Mantis stole his fire.
The Hottentot’s God, the Praying Mantis. Miss Beatrice saw one, inside the window, poised on the glass. She saw the day, and Highlands, and for a moment the night was gone. But then they were back in the dark and September was there. Tell me the story, September. He said nothing for a long time and Miss Beatrice didn’t know if she had spoken or if he didn’t hear or if he was not going to say another word until they got back to the farm. You know how that is when you don’t remember saying something but you know you wanted to say it, you were dying to say it, to somebody, even a maid or a garden-boy or the neighbor’s little girl. I have given up asking Jack because he is like that too. He waits, he doesn’t say anything, and then suddenly out of the blue, he screams, SHUT UP!
Here on the veld there was no one to shout like that at Miss Beatrice. September would sulk but not shout. She wasn’t sure if he was sulking now. She wasn’t sure how old he was either and that suddenly worried her. When the lamp swung to his side, she took a quick look at his face. It was yellow-brown, and cracked like an old apple and he had a peppercorn near his ear. She knew that he must be thinking about his people, about Ouma Boesman, about Nomsa, about the mielies he had planted, about the pumpkins on the roof of his pondokkie. She asked him, because she was the madam and yes she didn’t want to disturb him, but why shouldn’t he tell her? He had to tell her! September, why doesn’t the ostrich fly! Please!
He gave her a sideways look that was sour, but also laughing. Is die inies nie moeg nie? Not tired? No, she shook her head like a child. No, no, no. Please, the ostrich.
The Ostrich kept fire under his wing. One day he took the fire and made a big braaivleis, cooking something that smelled very good. The Mantis was walking past and smelled the braaivleis. He also wanted to have fire so that he could cook just like the Ostrich. So he made a plan to steal the Ostrich’s fire. He asked the Ostrich to come with him and they walked up to a big tree full of yellow fruit. The Mantis told the ostrich how good the fruit was and so the ostrich started to eat. No, said the Mantis, the best ones are high up. The Ostrich opened his wings to reach up high and the fire fell out. The Mantis grabbed his fire and ran away. Now the Ostrich always keeps his wings close to him in case the fire falls out again. He doesn’t flap his wings and fly.
Of all the birds, the ostrich is greatest. That was the last thing September said. That’s when the sky really got loud and Miss Beatrice could feel the spears of the hunters, and the coldness of their breath, as they chased the ostrich, the duiker, the springbok across the purple sea above their heads. She and September were driving their cart along the rim of the disappeared moon. Just when she had forgotten everything, the road turned and there was the sign that said, “Highlands.” The shape of the house was hard. Miss Beatrice found herself getting stiff and cold and when she lifted herself out of the cart, her feet were alive and hurting. September wasn’t smoke anymore. His clothes were old and smelled bad and he shuffled off leading the horses towards the stables.
Is this how life is, Miss Beatrice was thinking. You fly, you swim, you dance, you chase ostriches with Mr. Jacobs, September tells you stories and you fly higher, and then you crash. The crash is how things really are. People aren’t nice, and they look at you skew and their breath singes you. The world is full of shops and tight dresses and men jingling coins against their thighs. I wish I could have said to her, Yes, Miss Beatrice, that’s when a little dop comes in handy. Tannie Gin. She lets you swim and fly all you want, except when you wake up and there’s wet moss in your mouth. Nothing a little orange or a naartjie won’t cure. Or some fish paste on a piece of bread, with a good strong coffee. And then a walk with the dogs. Later, when that sharpness gets to you again, you just visit Tannie Gin again and everything’s not so hard anymore.
I don’t think Miss Beatrice would have listened to me. She probably would have hated me, the way my mother does. They all think I am a dronklap but I don’t care. She wasn’t like them, though. She wasn’t like anybody else.
Anne Landsman was born and raised in South Africa and received degrees from the University of Cape Town and Columbia University. Her new novel, The Rowing Lesson is available now from Soho Press. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children. This is an excerpt from her debut novel, The Devil’s Chimney.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.