Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Notes for a Novel #3: About snakes
Time for some light relief before moving on. There’s an elephant in the room that needs to be winkled out – apartheid, a prodigious pachyderm if there ever was one – but it can wait for next time.
Not everything in the life of a rural child was – is – unutterably dreadful. There’s a lot of humour, too. As anyone who has ever worked with kids (or had their own!) knows, children of all ages come packaged with a hugely generous dollop of good humour and a massive subscription of smiles.
The Kaartman Kids were rural children, too, of course, with some tales of their own. When our oldest boychild, Kaartmannetjie (Manne for short) was about seven he and a ragtag of tiny mates, including his own younger brother, used to go out into the veld near our Plumfoot house to catch taddies. There was an open sandy break there, a place where cables or pipes had once been laid, known to the kleintjies as the “Sandy Track”. The winter rains would fill the sandy depressions with clean, clear water, breeding grounds for frogs of several kinds. For weeks the puddles would be filled with thousands of wriggly tadpoles, all desperately growing and metamorphosing before the early summer sunshine dried up their nurseries and turned the unlucky ones into tiny shreds of biltong.
Manne and his mates would squat at edge of a puddle, their homemade nets hopefully scooping the water for hapless pollywogs, glass jars of pond water waiting to take home the catch. It was one of the truly great privileges of a rural childhood that even kids so small could enjoy that kind of freedom, unsupervised but within earshot of Mrs Kaartman’s voluble call that would summon them to the next meal, or baths, or whatever. So it was that one bright September morning the small people were well-established at their puddleside posts when Dickie, a neighbour’s kid, poked Manne in the ribs and whispered, “Mannetjie, what’s that?”
Manne looked up and froze. “Keep very still,” he whispered to the others; “If you keep absolutely still it won’t see you and it will go away.”
They all sat very, very still as a very large puff adder sidled slowly down across the sand, its black forked tongue flickering in and out of its clamped mouth, its deadly fangs hidden beneath its broad, pig-flat nose.
“Shhh!” whispered Manne softly as the fat, yellow-chevronned snake sniffed the water with its tongue, then immersed half its head and drank, long slow gulps that rolled and pulsated down its scaly sides. The serpent blew a few bubbles from its submerged nostrils, then withdrew from the water and slowly turned around. It was huge, one of the biggest snakes any of them had ever seen, and for a few moments its yellow, unlidded eyes met Manne’s. Then it turned and oozed away – puff adders don’t wriggle, they sort of ooze with subtle, peristaltic waves of ribs through patterned hide. Some people are repulsed by them; herpetologists love ’em.
When the snake had gone Kaartmannetjie stood up. “What was it?” whispered Dickie.
“It was a puff adder,” Manne breathed; “and if any of you ever tell Mum that we saw it here, I promise I’ll kill you!”
The manifest sincerity in Manne’s threat clearly impressed the ragtag, for nary a word of this was ever spoken by any of them, either to Mrs Kaartman or their own mamas. Manne confessed to his mother just last year, for the first time. It might have been his 33rd birthday, a full quarter-century post facto, but Mrs K was undeterred. “If I ever catch you going to the Sandy Track to catch taddies ... ever again ... I’ll tan your hide, young man!”
Of course the junior Kaartmanne were amongst the privileged rural kids. That was an accident of their birth, not their fault, and, as we shall see, lack of privilege did not prevent a great many funny things happening amongst the less well-off. Nevertheless, despite the freedoms the Kaartman Kids enjoyed they did have a few disadvantages, compared to city kids. Mrs K once landed on the first floor of the Golden Acre building in Cape Town, with an urgent bus to catch on the ground floor. The only apparent way down was via the escalators. The littlest Kaartman, these days an urbane, well-travelled scientist of growing repute, had never seen an escalator in his life and nothing, not even the loving arms of his mama, could persuade him to descend a machine that regurgitated and then swallowed its own steps. It took them half-an-hour to find the fixed stairs, and by then the bus had long gone ...
I have tales of rural waifs visiting the big city, too, but those will have to wait for another day.
Kaartman, December 2012