Poison Karoo

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Poison Karoo


Etienne van Heerden

 Translated by Isobel Dixon

He is an old man, grey now and with eyes that grow bluer the longer he stares at the sea, longing for the woman he has never seen again, not since those years long ago. He lives alone, and sits on his stoep gazing out over the bay, with the yo-yo spooling to and from his finger. His house is small and square, turned to face north-east, with its back to Paternoster’s harshest winds. In front of the stoep the ground slopes away, and a path leads down through low bietoubos and loose pebbles to the big, rounded rocks strewn over the beach, and further to the fish market where they gut the snoek so that even from where he sits he can see the red and white flesh, and further still, to the wide stretch of sand the locals call Voorstrand.

As a boy, his one blind eye kept him from sport and only the yo-yo gave him the chance to use his hands’ innate agility and skill. He was bored by athletics and never crazy about rugby; he was too slow to see a ball hurtling towards him, and other children avoided him because his eye made him different.

And though the yo-yo too was a kind of spinning ball, he didn’t need to look at it: he could feel the tug of the string on his finger. During his shows he had always told the children:

“You must learn to see with your hands. Your hand must look at the yo-yo and you must feel it play on your finger, the string talks to you here on the first joint of your middle finger – right there is the secret of the performance, there in your pulse, in the tug and release. The hand is a complex thing; it sits so neatly, so cleverly at the end of your forearm.

“This isn’t a dumb rugby ball you just have to catch and run with like a springhare, no, you need a different kind of cleverness here, a trick tucked up your sleeve, something to pull out – hey presto! – like a rabbit from your hat.”

Back in his childhood there were glass marbles with their little curlicues of colour trapped inside, too marvellous for words. Then came the hula hoop, everyone bop-bopping them around with their hips. And then, of course, the big one: In the days of the Zephyr Six, the plastic flyswatter, Gé Korsten and Groep Twee, in the time of Kaiser Matanzima and Sophiatown, then – then came the yo-yo.

In his twenties he became the yo-yo champion of the Great Karoo – a genius with the give and take of the spinning toy. On tour in the sixties, he was the darling of the dour platteland towns, where such frivolous play was frowned on. He was the one who brought the art of play to their stages, swimming against the heavy tide of conservatism.

When Coca-Cola moved in to back the yo-yo, he became one of Coke’s touring red-jacket men – driving from dorp to dorp through the platteland in his little Opel, performing in church halls and at agricultural shows. Every school kid in the Sandveld, from here up the West Coast to deep in Namaqualand, through the whole vast Great and Little Karoo, every one of them had to have a yo-yo with a Coca-Cola logo on it, and every one had to keep at it till he could master Rockin’ the Cradle, the hardest trick of all.

“It’s a trick that demands balance, patience and dexterity. Timing. Timing most of all. That’s what you need for Rockin’ the Cradle.

“Like this.”

Now it’s all over and here he is, lodged beside the ocean. When he stands in front of the mirror he sees the grey hair and the startling blue eyes and it is as if that youth with the smooth fringe and the supple grace of a ballet dancer never even existed. As if he has lost everything, as if his story no longer has its thread – until he reads of the oil company’s plans to mine shale gas in the Karoo.

He reads of hydro-fracking and how poison water is pumped deep into the layers of rock and how it breaks and fractures the rock and drives gas upwards to the surface, to industry, to the people.

And he thinks: I must do something about this, with my last ounce of strength.


So he is going back to the farm in the Karoo, the farm with the spring, a place he knows like the back of his own hand.

Every stony ridge, every bulge of magma where the earth once clotted and swelled aeons ago, every undulation in the landscape.

He knows every slant of light, and all the seasons which come sweeping over the dams and tilled lands, the open veld and mountains of the Karoo. He knows these like the life lines on his palms, and it gives him what little foothold he has in this life.

Often in the city where he had once made his living as a factory owner he’d looked down into his open palm, and here still in Paternoster his eyes keenly scan the map of lines etched into his hand. He knows the world those lines represent and it comforts him, gives him a sense of belonging.

In his years as Ludo Loeloeraai, Coca-Cola’s yo-yo champion, he cosseted his throw hand and was mindful of the wily skill of his open palm, its crafty memory.

He knows how things can drill deep down, how they can branch and crack and spread and fill with poison, the pressure building up so that small tremors deep in one’s spirit can destroy you without your even knowing, on the surface.

You only realise later – too late – when what issues from you begins to taste bitter to you and others around you, and you know there is nothing left inside you that is pure and clear.

Now he has to return to that farm with its spring, he must make this journey full of risks and he must go now, because just like with the fish quotas here on the West Coast, the government has also turned its back on the dry Karoo.

He isn’t really made for anything else but his yo-yo stunts, but he wants to give himself at least one chance to see if he can do something bigger than his trick, something less focused on the spinning disk, which might help carry him further, help him land the big fish, bring it home to harbour.

But there is something else as well. The memory of her body in his arms. When he went to her in the veld so many decades ago, her body had quivered, rippled. She was greedy, overwhelming, too quick for him, her arms unexpectedly strong and her stomach muscles hard, and when he stood up from her he was in a state of vertigo: he felt the world turning about him, and he flew.

That’s how it was in his yo-yo days when he travelled from dorp to dorp in his Opel to perform on school stages and in showground halls – she’d dance naked on a slab of black dolerite with the arid Karoo stretching grey and shimmering behind her, and in the distance he could see the springboks leaping and pronking and he could see them drinking the wind, and he knew that play like this was a celebration and a joy, and he had already forgotten how.

It is this memory, too, which drives him now, away from his stoep and out of Paternoster, away, much further away.

It is difficult to act, to leave. He hadn’t realised how much he’d taken root there alongside the ocean. He was grafted to that verandah, it was his emotional centre of gravity, his anchor, he could barely stir from it.

Yes, that was what drove him: The moments with her and the realisation, suddenly, again, that a completely different life was possible, that in a split second you could grasp things afresh, that the old adventure wasn’t gone for ever, but lying in wait for you, and that any moment you could chance upon it, like a lynx seething in the corner of a camp where two fences meet. Or a swathe of Namaqualand daisies when you crest a rise and are struck by their sudden glorious abundance. Or two snakes mating, shining and intertwined and creepily beautiful in their cold skins, so focused on their task that you could step over them and they wouldn’t even sense your presence.

These are the images that rise in his mind as he drives out, putting his foot down as he hits the open stretch of road, the old Jeep stuttering at first, but the engine gradually warming up and easing into what he asks of it. Ludo winds his window down, and feels the wind pluck at his cheeks.


Ludo is the son of a water bailiff, the local waterfiskaal. His father was a kind of priest and magistrate in that Karoo world – a man in khaki shorts with a small farm of his own, but without the hardscrabble struggle of the smallholders farming on the river banks close to town and without the self-importance of the big farming clans settled on acres of land that stretched as far as the eye could see.

His father was a man with an eye on what their family called “the deep water”, a man with a feel for sluices and a conviction that everyone deserved their share. His father sometimes ended up in fist fights with the farmers, but the water that surged from the Commando Drift Dam and Lake Arthur, pressing through underground till it bubbled up at the weir at Rooidraai as if from nowhere, all this water his father managed like the Pope managed the church, so they said back then.

“The politics of water,” his father often sighed, and nothing more needed to be said. The whole family understood.

His father was a man too intelligent for his work, but perhaps that was his good fortune, because he could attend to his duties with a deep, almost priestly seriousness. When the call came from Commando Drift to say the water was on its way, he would pick up his quota register, call every farmer along the canal, explaining everything slowly and deliberately – almost ritually, religiously – then take out his stopwatch and wind it up, whistle for his fox terrier and walk out to the bailiff’s bakkie.

When you stood there next to the big weir at Rooidraai, the cement trench still empty, baked dry by the sun, you could feel the earth tremble under your feet long before the first spray of the torrent reached you.

You could smell it, it was on the march, in its advance it carried the memory of little rivulets and deep dongas, the Bergkaroo and great rivers and flash floods. There were relics in that water, the scent of plants and soil and pebbles and drowned creatures from far afield, a sense of richness foreign to Rooidraai, and you waited for the water with a thrill you could feel quivering in the soles of your feet.

The shuddering travelled up, first through the calves and then the thighs, and his father said: “Can you also feel it in your hips, son, feel it pressing up in your belly, and now it’s in your chest, here it comes, the big water.”

Then the shaking was so powerful that a go-away bird flew up – he hadn’t even noticed it sitting there behind a thorn bush – and Druppel the fox terrier, who had been whining and leaping up onto the bakkie and off again, and running round in circles and sniffing the ground, now came to seek shelter between his father’s legs, and it was almost as though the sky darkened as his father called out: “Here it comes!”

One day a dog was disgorged first, spewed out by the mighty force from Commando Drift and with the power of the whole Great Karoo behind the torrent. The dog was nothing but flesh, its skin stripped off by the water, just freshly skinned meat, but you could see from the shape of its face it had been a dog. His father said, “The poor creature must have fallen in the water on the other side, and look how bare the force of it has stripped him.”

And other days there were pieces of wood, black and shiny and twisted, and sometimes an old shoe or item of clothing. With that first welling and spitting out of the underground water things emerged, his father said, which should rather have remained hidden. One day, it was said, there was even a dead Sotho boy, thrust all the way by the Free State underground water to here in the dry Karoo where people spoke Xhosa and Afrikaans.

But it was only that first spewing that carried such grief, because then the next cough of water came, a foamy wave pumping out, and then another. It was as though the Karoo had choked and gasped for air and at first the water was sucked back into the underwater pipe on the intake of breath, and then it came out again wide-mouthed, and in the end there was the steady flow of thousands of gallons of water.

At such times, Ludo’s father the water bailiff was a rich man, master of a great power, the giver of generous gifts, provider of food and good fortune for many families.

People were grateful to his father, but also envious, because even though he also had a farm, as water bailiff he had an extra income (hence the shiny John Deere) and he didn’t need to be so attuned to the sudden harsh moods of the horizon or stock diseases or staff troubles on the farms or the falling price of milk or wool. No, his father had his register book, a clearly defined task, and authority. He carried a stopwatch which waited for no man, not even the richest landowner: his father could stand his ground and use his fists if a farmer refused to drop the sluice gate leading to his farm dam.

“If your turn is past, it’s past,” his father liked to say, and yes, it seemed priestly, as though he was pronouncing on life itself.

And his father also said: “It stands to reason that water is this landscape’s great metaphor, how could it be otherwise? Every human emotion you can think of, water becomes its bearer.

“That’s why people are so upset whenever there’s an issue about water.

“Meddle with water and you’re meddling, deeply and dangerously, with the very soul of the Karoo.”

As a boy Ludo had no idea what a metaphor was; he confused metafoor with watervoor, thought his father was talking somehow about a furrow – but still he caught the gist of his father’s words.

So now he was coming back with all these memories dammed up inside him, with his yo-yo hand on the Jeep’s warm steering wheel, as he gazed out over the Karoo.

He came to look at the first hydro-fracking machinery, out of a kind of curiosity because the newspapers were so full of the protest against what the oil giant wanted to do in the Karoo.

He wanted to see where new roads had been carved out for the trucks carrying the water to be mixed with chemicals before the poisoned mixture was pumped down into boreholes. The boreholes had tunnels branching off them, and the water would create enough pressure to fragment the rocks so that the earth’s gas could be released: the great harvest the oil company had in its sights, a new kind of farming, or perhaps even hunting.

He also wanted to see where the chemical depots would be, he was coming to bear witness, because he knew what went on deep in the underground layers of rock and shale. You can’t grow up in the Karoo without a feel for groundwater, the deep water. He knew how clear it ran down there, how ancient it was. As old as the centuries, untouched by the hand of man – that was how the water tables and the narrow lakes and fine veins of deepwater lay, so deep under the ground that sometimes a dowser walking over it with his forked stick felt no life there, so deep and secretly it lay.

It was the unconscious of the Karoo, the place from which the fountains drew their water. It was a quiet, private place, that place of water.

It was the place he went to inwardly, when he was performing at high intensity, so he could play with a purity, a conviction of being.

Now the petrol giant had come, boring holes through the strata, sending jets of poisonwater filled with chemicals down to explode and fracture, so that the poison sprayed and seeped through the deep veins and aquifers, and he who knew about water, who’d grown up in a house where water was the one word that was even more beautiful than the words faith, hope and love, he who came from that home, the son of a water bailiff, he knew it was a poison that would dam up in the unconscious of the heartland for ever.

It would become a false memory, a punishment and a burden which would eventually well upwards to the surface. The poison would seep out and nothing would be left untouched. This would be the legacy of the petrol company and its people, with their highly paid scientists and their huge drilling sites smelling of petrol and despair. And the legacy of the nation’s government, all crowded around the trough, seeing the Karoo only as semi-desert, a dry and arid place without bling, a place to drive through or fly over on the way to glitzier engagements. This government had forgotten the meaning of water.

The Commando Drift water, that spewing drift, the weir at Rooidraai, wasn’t the only water he knew as a child. There was other, clearer water, and it is this water he comes in search of now. A journey to a holy place, a pilgrimage.

Tired of life, and himself full of dammed-up poison, Ludo is going back to the spring on the farm, the fountain farm, one last time. The place he seeks is “the unceasing spring”. Again, his late father’s phrasing. The spring wasn’t on their farm, but on adjoining land belonging to one of the big farmers, and as a child he’d climbed through the fence almost every day to go to the spring. When their neighbour spotted him there he’d just say: “I want to go drink at the fountain, Oom.” That Oom, a flashy chequebook farmer, a boastful man who jealously guarded his land, had a reputation for shooting at trespassers, but he let the boy go his way and his answer was always: “The sweetest water in the district.”

The Law of Water was complex (“a trial from Our Lord”, his father would remark, laconically), and the fountain fed a reed-lined river which led from the big farm down into a cement furrow that ran over several farmers’ lands to the town, where it irrigated the community’s lawns, rose gardens and orchards.

The spring belonged to everyone (just as it should be with the sea, he thought, and the fish in the belly of the sea), and that rich stoep farmer, with his Plymouth and the team of show horses which won the big trophy at every agricultural show, knew it. “It’s a warning to me,” he apparently once said to the dominee, “that you can’t own everything under your feet. You can stand, feet planted wide, on your farm, you can stand and piss so that your smell hangs in the air and even the lynxes stay away if your piss smells strong enough, but that fountain makes you realise: There are some things which can’t be owned.”

It was a story his father, the water bailiff, told with relish. It was a comfort, because even if you had much less to your name than that fat-cat bastard with his polished wife, at least there were some precious things which that man could not get deed and title to.

Some things are beyond possession.

It was a lesson for the wealthy farmers, and a liberation for the envious who couldn’t afford a Plymouth themselves.

That was the way it was with that spring water, and as a boy he climbed through the fence and walked through the reeds till he smelled the scent of the deep earth and came to the koppie which lay there bent in upon itself, forming a kind of groin, with layers of shale where the earth was exposed, and a deep cleft from which the water seeped.

It was cool there, where the water filtered slowly from the stone strata. It wasn’t a bubbling spring with one clear source: the water issued from the stacked stone layers which could no longer withstand its slow, steady compulsion, even if it seemed somehow tight-fisted, reluctant. “The sure, slow force of the water.”

His father’s words, back when other matters held his father in their grip.

His father and others were angry because a big oil company wanted to demolish an old building – a church hall, the town’s first community hall – and build a petrol station in its place, on the corner opposite the beautiful old church (built as an exact copy of a church in England).

Before the locals realised it, the oil company had bought the hall from a trust and put plans in motion for a filling station with four petrol pumps: the holiday traffic between Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth increased every Christmas and Easter weekend, and there was money to be made.

There was much toing and froing, and somehow his father ended up as the chairman of the townsfolk’s pressure group. They opposed the demolition of the old hall and protested against the construction of such an eyesore so close to the church, there on the Karoo square where the English had bound the two Boer traitors to chairs and executed them. After which their bodies were laid out in that very same hall for everyone to come and see how a firing squad can, as one man, fire one hole in a Boer’s chest, so neat and so final. The thing with war, his father always said, it’s just one big choice: You must choose the side you’re on. One of the traitors was a cousin of his father’s grandfather.

The story of the traitor-cousin was only one of many stories. That church hall held other stories too. He couldn’t remember them all and in his mind they flowed together into one story anyway – it became the story of things cherished and safeguarded, things not to be disturbed or destroyed, the precious myths of place. They will grow and be embroidered upon, and be partially forgotten, things will be fabricated and deliberately omitted, but in the end the little hall stood there as so much more than just a shabby old building with a leaky roof and creaky old doors and floorboards infested with borer beetles.

This humble little hall (again his father’s words) is the hall in which our forefathers sit, all looking in the same direction. We are now on the stage, they are watching to see what we will do. We are now responsible, we speak for them.

“And we merely hold everything in trust for those that come after us, our children. This is now the hour of our watch, and we must be on our guard, ready to call out, ‘Halt!’ at the crucial moment.”

Oh yes, his father the bailiff had a way with words.


It was the memory of his father’s battle to save the church hall and stop the dreadful petrol station that spurred him to take part in the anti-fracking demonstration in Cape Town, the week before his journey into the Karoo.

He was never one for public demonstrations, he preferred to carry out his protests quietly. Absence, he had always thought, perhaps mistakenly, spoke just as loudly as a noisy and negative presence.

It was a warm summer’s day when he drove from Paternoster to Cape Town and parked the Jeep on the Parade.

He stuffed the yo-yo in his front trouser pocket, wary of pickpockets.

The first people were gathering in Zonnebloem. He felt awkward, out of place: there seemed to be many groups taking part in the demonstration. There was a sense of gaiety in the air, almost a carnival atmosphere, as the banners screamed out their protest:

Stop fracking now!

Leave our frackin’ Karoo alone!


He walked right at the back of the parade, in the slipstream of sweat and noisy chattering, and knew he would never feel at one with the protestors – there was something in him which always stood to one side, observing everything, wondering against what ghosts or masters in their own minds people fighting this or that cause were actually protesting.

Protest marches were like water, he thought. It’s never just a march. His father’s word: metaphor.

It was these thoughts and his uneasiness at activism’s narrow boundaries that made him decide to drive to the Karoo alone, in silence. He would go and see for himself and he would make his own quiet protest. Perhaps I will lie down in front of a bulldozer, he thought to himself. Perhaps I will poison a petrol engineer’s coffee, he smiled ruefully. But he wasn’t that man. What he wanted was to go and kneel down at the spring. Everything in him thirsted for this.


The road through the Karoo is hot and the sun is high. When he stops at a lay-by somewhere between Beaufort-West and Aberdeen, there is only the soughing in his own ears, and a few bluebottles buzzing around the rubbish bin under the pepper tree. He smells the sweet scent of human shit and sees thick curls of it lying there with a shred of white toilet paper flapping in the wind. It smells like the prickly pear blossom in the donga behind their house, back then. For a long time he stands there remembering, listening to his own blood, then gets back into the car and presses on.

What would be an exhausting journey through the semi-desert for others is now a source of refreshment to him, a long, rejuvenating draught from a glass of cool water.

The sweet scent of shit stays with him and it is not unpleasant.

He checks into the hotel with the Victorian dining and sitting rooms and naps for a bit. He will go out to the spring in the afternoon. The woman at reception says the roads out to the farm are busy: the oil company has lost no time converting the cabinet’s nod into convoys of water trucks, heavy machinery and tankers. Hydraulic fracking has begun on a farm not far from the spring. As the first experiment, they say.

He drinks coffee on the hotel verandah, casting his mind back to some of the hundreds of little hotels he had visited as Ludo Loeloeraai. He is grateful that he is here incognito and not as a Coca-Cola cardboard cut-out or yo-yo star. Then he drives out to the farm. The tarred road runs past what used to be called the location in the olden days. It still looks poor, desperately so in places. They hope, he knows, that the shale gas will improve their lot: bring work, and put bread on the table.

Just as the lines on the palm clenched on the steering wheel will it, much remains the same. Here and there a new tree has been planted, or the road shifted a bit. The gate has a new sign, and some of the fences stand higher. But everything is as he has it in the palm of his hand, even the place where he and his father used to drive with the John Deere tractor – yes, that little dirt track still led down past the thorn tree hollow.

It is only next to the tarred road that he sees tracks where the trucks have pulled over. In one place, always a popular picnic spot for holiday-makers on their way to PE, there is now a camp enclosed by high fences, and even with searchlights, he notices. Curious, he looks at the machinery and the trucks, the prefab huts and the workers with their hard hats. Some kind of depot, he thinks.

No anger wells up in him. A kind of resignation. He is surprised – is this all? So little emotion? People get so worked up, so passionate – and what of him? Does his scepticism seep through even to that which is most precious to him, the old things?

Has he performed so many tricks over the years that he is now played-out – so played-out that he can’t confront the petrol giant’s big trick properly, take a stance and let his rage loose on it?


One day, back in the sixties, he had walked towards her in a deep sloot, somewhere between Aberdeen and Murraysburg, he remembers the place exactly. He had the cardboard cut-out man with him in the car, a life-sized photo of himself in his Coca-Cola jacket with the yo-yo spinning out from his hand. Ludo Loeloeraai, with a great big smile on his face. He always set it up to one side of the stage when he performed.

He fetched the cardboard man from the Opel and walked with it held out in front of him, stumbling here and there over the scrubby Karoo bushes. He pushed the narrow man with the stiff smile in front of him and she laughed when she saw the apparition move across the bare veld. She was even more naked than he was, that was one of her own tricks, to go straight to the pleasures of the body without the diversion of words: she had a hunger he had never before experienced in a woman. At first she’d laughed, and then she’d realised he wasn’t joking as he planted the cardboard man in the sand and stood behind it and said: “Is he the one you’re fucking?”

At first she teased him, flirting, stroking her thighs, but when she saw that he was really serious she’d walked away, her feet disturbing the warm, heavy sand. He watched an ant tumble into the dip of her footprint as she stepped out of the sloot, he saw the curve of her bum, and then she was up and out behind a bush and moments later he heard the Land Rover start up. She didn’t drive off in the way expected, with a revving and jolting over the stones, she drove away slowly, and that was one of the last times.

He shoved the man into the Opel again and drove after her, racing along the dirt road behind the fresh Land Rover tracks, but here she must have put her foot down, and apart from the faint scent of scorching and dust in the air she was gone. From the crest of a rise he saw her speeding across the open plain, just the dot of the Land Rover and a trail of dust, till she turned onto the tarred road and he knew he would never catch up with her.

He had insulted her, he was a bungler; he had lost track of himself back then. It was not that she was after the cardboard man: it was that he himself had become that flat cardboard cut-out. Only later he realised that she was the one who had drawn him out from behind the stiffened smile with its painted white teeth and that glaring red jacket, from behind the frozen-in-time full-colour yo-yo stunt.

The cardboard man was one great exclamation mark calling out Look at me! And she was the one who had seen the shuffling feet behind the one-dimensional image and had desired him and used every trick in her book to capture and captivate him, only he was too blind to see it because he had become his own bag of tricks: he was nothing but an empty stunt himself. Ludo Loeloeraai was now his name; his given name lay far behind him like a forgotten handkerchief. A scrap of khaki lying in the veld, a name he no longer answered to.


Seeing the oil company’s encampment, something wells up in him, a weariness, a kind of bluntedness, a feeling of surrender – what he always felt when he had to do anything other than perform, and this attempt to get involved with the protest against the poisoning of the Karoo was just that kind of thing, something happening to him that he couldn’t quite connect with.

Today was his test, and if his blood stirred for this cause then he was worth more than he’d thought; he was not just cardboard cut-out and master of the yo-yo, he would also be a believer, an activist.

He still had some backbone, and man could not live by one trick alone, you needed faith too, and rage. You couldn’t just make a life from entertainment, you also had to remember your own name, always; you had to be yourself, and there was nothing that made you more you than when you had rage and passion and conviction. But there on his stoep in Paternoster all these things had evaporated, and even the pleasure of play had seemed as flimsy as cardboard.

He remembered the words of Fraserburg’s dominee: “Play is an evil in the eyes of the Lord.” He’d wanted to answer: “It’s when you play for a cheque or an envelope of cash that the devil’s got you in his grasp,” but it would sound like an accusation, because it was the dominee’s wife who had arranged his invitation to perform in the school hall, and when she handed him his cheque, there was a gleam in her eye and he’d thought: She’s a loose one, this one.

But he had driven away – that was his life, always driving away, so many little towns left behind, places where after his departure the magic of play was soon forgotten.


Ludo stops far from the homestead. The place has often changed hands, he knows. On previous visits – first with the Opel and later with the Jeep – the changes to the homestead and the farmyard were painful to observe. But he isn’t here today to look at the clumsy handiwork and bad taste of others as they tampered with a historic building – he is here for the spring and it feels as though he is going to meet a lover, as if she could be waiting for him there.

He ducks underneath the wire where the fence has sagged. As it always is with these things, the distance he has to walk is shorter than he remembers. But the little river is flowing nicely, whispering through the reeds, and there are the familiar trails of algae and the scent of dammed-up slime, the sun glittering on the runnels where the water flows faster, and a group of bright finches clinging to the bulrushes, their nests hanging round-bellied over a quiet pool.

All around him stretches the bare veld, and there ahead of him is the cleft of stone the water filters from. He pauses when he hears a strange sound, but then thinks: Just my imagination.

His heart beats strongly in his breast – not just from the walk, because the stretch of sand at Paternoster he’s walked daily has prepared him well. It is because he can hardly wait to reach the sweet water. He has to press through reeds – more than he remembers – to reach the spot. It has changed: one part of it is dry, but at another split in the rock it seems there is more water than before.

It is this pool which lures him: the water dammed deep and black there, surrounded by rock, with a clarity that he was enchanted by as a child, and which he has almost forgotten.

He kneels at the spring. The familiar scent of groundwater, stonewater, strikes him full in the face. It dizzies him at first, the scent carries so many things he has denied for so long. Then a calm washes over him, a conviction that what he has done till now is right, was meant to be.

He is a youth again and he rolls up his sleeve, all the way to the elbow. He wiggles the string loose from his middle finger and places the yo-yo carefully on a rock. He has looked forward to this moment for so long. He’s prepared himself like someone about to undergo a great ritual, something to do with a god or an old order: something deeply meaningful. He can feel his skin calling through the years to the water of this spring.

He can feel the thirst of his flesh, his limbs, and especially his throw-hand, his play-hand. It isn’t the thirst of the mouth, it is the thirst of the body and more: of the marrow.

He’s seen news of research in newspapers and on the internet: how every cell in the human body has a memory. They call it biological memory, and although the human body is 70% water, each of those cells also contains the dammed-up memory of that person – and, he believes, of that person’s ancestors.

If you experience trouble or trauma, it’s stored there in every one of your cells. It is not only your brain that remembers. Your body is the greatest rememberer of all.

And his body remembers that spring water and longs for it, and that is why he has returned after all these years.

He has come back because he remembers.

Perhaps he’s also returned because she was the fountainhead on which he’d turned his back.

He is wearing long trousers and he knows he will walk away from here with two brown stains on his knees. But let them see he has been kneeling here. Let them see he has come back to pay homage.

Because he believes in cleansing, and although he is no banner waver, he believes that some things are primal, and holy.

He leans forward and plunges his arm deep into the dark water, startled by its terrible chill. He smells something, but it isn’t with his nose that he catches its scent, it registers high in his sinuses, in his skull.

It is an alien smell. It makes him think of battery acid or vinegar, but no, it isn’t that; he thinks of the smell of diesel and engine oil at a shining new petrol station opposite a church in a small town, long ago, when the battle was lost. But that isn’t it either.

He thinks of the things that have been told to him over the years, the things that were recited to him, the things that were expected of him, the things that haunt him – it is that kind of scent yes, but also not quite.

It is something more. It is as though the smell overwhelms the whole landscape, and now invades his body as well.

With his arm deep in the water, he raises his head. Ludo hears something, a grinding, a steady hammering: blood beating in his temples. He hears and he smells and he knows it has begun. It is as though his body already remembers the damage, it is already history.

He pulls his arm out and the skin has been stripped from it: his arm and his hand look like the flesh-carcass of that dog spinning in the weir’s first spewing, years ago, with the whimpering fox terrier darting about his legs and his father, the water bailiff, the man who with legs planted wide and stopwatch in hand lifted that first sluice gate, and they watched as the dog slipped through and was washed out to someone’s lands.

He stares in amazement as water drips from the limb, then in horror and disgust as he sees that the skin is seared from his arm, and his hand, even the lines of his palm erased. He knows it is the memory of the dog, not this spring, that brings this on him now, but he also knows that he will never again throw a yo-yo with this hand.

“Tragic, so stripped of all its skin,” his father had said. “As though that poor cur had landed in a tub of acid. But the crows and the maggots will soon finish him off when he washes out in a field somewhere. Perhaps other dogs will eat him. He’s nothing but meat now.”

His father had lit a cigarette.

“I wonder who his owner is, what kind of irresponsibility let that dog wander off. To end up here in the Karoo, stripped bare of everything.”

Copyright © Etienne van Heerden 2012
Copyright © English translation Isobel Dixon 2012

“Poison Karoo” is a chapter from Etienne van Heerden’s novel about a yo-yo champion, to be published in March 2013 by Tafelberg Publishers.

Poison Karoo is a work of fiction, written as if commercial hydraulic fracking has already begun in the Karoo.

Other books by Etienne van Heerden which feature the Karoo landscape are
(in Afrikaans):
Haai Karoo (2012), 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (2008), Asbesmiddag (2007), In Stede van die Liefde (2005), Die Stilte na die Boek (2004), Die Swye van Mario Salviati (2000), Kikoejoe (1996), Die Gas in Rondawel Wilhelmina (1995), Die Stoetmeester (1993), Casspirs en Campari’s (1991), Liegfabriek (1988), Toorberg (1986), My Kubaan (1983) and Matoli (1979). Van Heerden grew up in the Cradock and Graaff-Reinet districts.

Titles available in English are:
30 Nagte in Amsterdam as 30 Nights in Amsterdam (2011); Die Swye van Mario Salviati as The Long Silence of Mario Salviati (2002); Kikoejoe as Kikuyu (1998); Die Stoetmeester as Leap Year (1997); and Toorberg as Ancestral Voices (1989). In Stede van die Liefde is forthcoming as In Love’s Place in 2013.

The English translation of Gifkaroo is by Isobel Dixon, whose poems about the Karoo are included in her collections The Tempest Prognosticator (2011), A Fold in the Map (2007) and Weather Eye (2001), which was awarded the Olive Schreiner Prize in 2004. She grew up in Graaff-Reinet.

The texts were edited by Suzette Kotzé-Myburgh (Afrikaans) and Louise Steyn (English).

Poison Karoo was written out of concern and dismay at the proposals for hydraulic fracking in the Karoo.

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