I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Twice a year, the Sharpener arrived at the top gate, whistled for them to lock up the dogs, and then made his way around the back of the house to the kitchen lawn. Usually, the girl was there first. She squatted like him to see the files and stones laid out in a silent circle, the carving knife taken up, the flash of the blade as he curved his wrist left and right, never missing. And then the gleaming thing laid down on the tray, where she longed to touch it.
If the nanny saw the girl out there, she called her in. The Sharpener was a wild man, she said, he drank cheap brandy and lived under a piece of tin. He could be a Coloured, said her mother, or just dark from working in the sun, and from lawnmower grease, and from not washing properly.
But whenever the girl heard his whistle, she ran out anyway. He never looked up at her. He wasn’t the sort of man to notice a child growing year by year, or to care. He seemed to consider only the knives, always choosing the carver first, holding it up to the light, running its edge along the pad of his thumb. When all the knives were sharpened and he walked around to the front verandah, she followed him there. She waited next to his satchel while he opened the little door and climbed down under the house to fetch the lawnmower.
And then one day she asked, “What do you do under the house?”
And he stopped on the top step and turned to look at her with his dirty green eyes. He didn’t smile, he never smiled. But he tossed his head for her to follow him, and so she did, down into the cool, dim light.
She knew the place well. It was deep and wide, running the length of the verandah, and high enough to stand up in. Bicycles were kept down there, and the old doll’s pram, pushed now behind the garden rakes and hoes and clippers. There were sack of seed, and bulbs, manure, and cans of oil. Through an opening in the wall, deeper in, were rooms and rooms of raw red earth’, with walls and passages between them, like the house above. In the middle was a place no light could reach. She had crawled back there once, and crouched, and listened to rats scraping and darting, footsteps above, the dogs off somewhere. It smelled sour back there, and damp, and wonderful.
The Sharpener stood just out of a beam of light that came in through one of the vents. He tossed his head at her again and moved deeper into the shadow.
She knew rude things. She had done rude things with cousins and friends. There was a frenzy to them—the giggling and hushing and urging on. But now she stood solemn and still as the Sharpener came to crouch before her. He lifted her skirt and found her bloomers, pulled them down to her knees.
“We can lie down,” he said.
But she shook her head, and he stood up again. He unbuttoned his trousers, pulled his thing through the slit and held it out on the palm of his hand. She knew he was offering it to her, asking for something too, his eyes never leaving her face. But she clasped her hands behind her back and looked down at the floor.
He pushed himself closer, pushed his thing up under her skirt, against her stomach, breathing his smell all over her, sweat and liquor and dirt. He turned her around and crouched behind her to push it between her legs. When she lifted her skirt, she saw it sticking through as if it were her own, and she giggled.
There was a man who sat at the bus stop outside school sometimes. He sat there smiling, teeth missing everywhere. Often his trousers were open, and there was a pool of his mess under the bench. The headmistress warned them in prayers about men like that, never to talk to them, never to take lifts from them either. Some had cars without door handles on the inside, she said, you could never get out.
The Sharpener laughed in a whisper behind her. He turned her to face him again, loosened her gym girdle and pulled the whole uniform over her head, the blouse too. Then she stamped off the bloomers herself.
“Big lady,” he said. He touched the swelling of her breasts, the hair starting between her legs, ran a finger down the middle of it, under and in.
Once she had seen a boy at the edge of the hockey field. He was holding his thing while he watched them practice. “Ugh!” she had said with the others. But that boy had become a habit of longing for her, a habit of dreaming, too.
She watched the Sharpener undo his belt and let his trousers fall. She looked at his skinny thing between his skinny legs. “Big lady,” he said, pulling her to one of the sacks and bending her over it. “Big lady, big lady,” he whispered, fiddling at her with his fingers, stroking, separating, urging himself into her a little at a time so that she gasped, not with pain but with the fear of pain. And then, after the pain, with the beginning, with the surprise of pleasure, a wild and rude sort of pleasure, wilder and ruder than anything, anything. Even the tea tray rattling out onto the verandah couldn’t stop it, even the nanny calling her name. He was grunting and heaving over her now. She wanted to tell him they wouldn’t come down here, they wouldn’t. But he jerked himself free anyway, he clutched and cried against her like a baby, crybaby bunting.
She wanted to cry too. She wanted him to say “Big lady” again, and go on, but he wouldn’t. He got up and went for his trousers, pushed his skinny legs into them and buckled his belt.
The back of her leg was damp and cold. She felt it with her hand, it was slimy with his mess. “Ugh!” she said, wiping it off on the sack.
But he didn’t look up. He was over at the lawn mower now, pulling it free. He hawked and spat into the darkness. She wanted to spit, too. She wanted to tell on him, to tell anyone she liked about the dirty stinking Coloured who put his thing into her without asking.
And then she heard the dogs. She could have heard them before if she had—the barking and the shouting and the running overhead—but she hadn’t. And now there they were, roaring down into the darkness, making straight for him.
“Missie!” he screamed. “Missie!”
She grabbed at a rake, thrashed and thrashed at the dogs, although she knew it would do no good. They were crazed by Coloureds, even someone who just seemed Coloured. And they hated the Sharpener most of all. One had him by the calf, the other snarled and jumped and snapped at his shoulder.
Her mother and the cook came out onto the verandah, shouting for the garden boy to bring the hose, the dogs had got out. The Sharpener dropped to his knees, bloodied and torn, covered his head with his arms.
And then the garden boy arrived with the hose, shouting too, pointing it into the darkness until he could see the dogs. But when he saw the girl standing there, he lowered his head and dropped the hose. He ran out into the garden, screaming for the nanny.
The girl was wet when they found her, her clothes soaking on the floor. And the Sharpener had given up screaming. He lay curled around himself, quite still. And so the dogs had given up too. They stood back, panting.
She tried to save him without answering all their questions. But she couldn’t. They decided he was Coloured after all, and they locked him up for good. They’d have locked him up for good even if he weren’t Coloured, her mother said. And the girl didn’t argue.
But now, lying in bed with her own man or another, she’s always down there again, under the house, with the Sharpener. Over the years, he has only got wilder. Sometimes, he brings a friend and they take turns with her. They drink brandy from a bottle and laugh and make one of the dogs go first. And then the Sharpener pulls the dog away. He has to have her for himself. He cannot wait.
—Lynn Freed is the author of four novels, three of them set in her native South Africa. Her latest novel is The Mirror (Crown). Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, and many other publications.
Li Young Lee