by Clive Algar
“If you see smoke on the horizon it will be time to leave,” Christiaan told her urgently during the last wartime visit he dared make to Vlakfontein.
He gripped her slender shoulders with his big hands, holding her with straight arms and looking into her worried grey eyes, as if she were a child who must be made to understand.
“But if we leave, what will they do to our house?” Lizzie cried.
“They will burn it whether you stay or go. If you stay, then you and our girls will be taken to Potch camp, and there you might die, as many others have died and are dying now. You know this as well as I do. You will stand a better chance of survival in the veld. We will work out a plan for your survival.”
She looked into his brown eyes and saw them welling up with tears, tears that hesitated for a moment and then trickled down his sunburnt cheeks into his wiry beard. And that brought tears to her eyes too. She flicked them away and glanced towards the house, where the two little girls, five and three, were playing with their dolls on the stoep, oblivious to the terrors of the grown-up world.
They dried their eyes and walked back to the house, past two large brown dogs sleeping in the path. Lizzie took off her floral kappie and shook loose her thick auburn hair. Ever since her childhood she had been compelled to shade her fair skin from the fierce Transvaal sun, to limit the freckles that some people thought were charming but which she detested.
The kappie was made of a delicate floral print; if a kappie was to be an essential part of her daytime wear, she had decided long ago, it would not be a plain one. But even so, when she had gone into the dorp on Sundays or weekdays, before the war came close, she had always worn one of her straw boaters, usually the newest one with a broad red ribbon around its crown. She was still only twenty-seven years old, after all, and she felt even younger.
While Christiaan sat on the stoep and talked to Florence and Louise, Lizzie went to the kitchen to get two mugs of coffee. She paused at the hallstand just inside the front door to hang up her kappie and to run her fingers through her hair in front of the mirror. Whenever Christiaan came home on one of his brief, rare visits, while his commando was somewhere in the vicinity, she wanted to look her best for him.
Later they heard the milk cows coming home and Christiaan went out to speak privately with the foreman Johannes. It was not a pleasant task, as Johannes had been on Vlakfontein since he was a child, in the time of Christiaan’s father, but it was intolerable that he should behave badly during his master’s absence, showing disrespect to his mistress.
It was perfectly understandable that old Johannes was feeling the strain of doing what amounted to three men’s work, but in wartime everything was difficult for everybody, and there was no excuse for raising his voice to his mistress. She had given him an instruction, and he had shouted that he knew better than she how to run a farm.
When Christiaan returned to the stoep Lizzie looked at him enquiringly and he shook his head.
“I don’t know what’s come over Johannes. He just avoided my eyes and looked sullen. I suppose he resents the fact that I have taken the three younger labourers along on commando as agterryers, and left him to shoulder the burden with only the women and the two boys to help him.”
“Paulus and Thomas are big boys now, almost men, and they work hard. Most of the women are also doing what used to be men’s work. And I don’t stick to women’s work either – look at these bruises from being bumped into the kraal fence by cattle during the dipping.”
Lizzie rolled up her sleeve and showed him. He took her hand between his and smiled ruefully.
“My worry is,” Christiaan continued, “that Johannes has been infected by politics. More and more kaffirs think that if the English win this war they will be better off.”
Lizzie nodded and looked grim. When she had come to Vlakfontein as a bride, when Christiaan’s mother was still alive, she had for a while romanticized the relationship between the family and their volk. Some had been there for generations and had become, if not part of the family then certainly more than servants. They lived in their simple, limewashed cottages not a hundred yards from the house, they spoke Dutch, sang Boer songs, and called their children by European names.
But as time passed she had modified her views to distinguish between those among the volk who were loyal and sincere, and those about whom she was not sure. But she had hidden this worry from Christiaan in 1899 when he had been called to join the local commando. At first he had been reluctant to go as he had felt she and the children would be at risk. But she had persuaded him to do his duty, even though her heart ached.
At that time the wife of the commandant had spoken to the wives of the burghers one Sunday after church.
“Sisters, as the wife of a soldier you must be as independent as possible, both practically and emotionally. You must maintain the smooth running of your household without your husband’s help. You might not be eager to handle weapons, but it is essential before your husband leaves that you know where the guns and ammunition are kept, and that you become adept at handling them.”
But so far it had not come to that. At first the worst thing was the monotony and the sense of isolation. When Christiaan disappeared for months she had no idea where he might be, whether he was alive or dead. Then Pretoria fell, the burghers became guerrillas, and rumours about concentration camps and farm burnings developed into facts. On one of his few home visits Christiaan told her it would be better if she did not venture into the dorp any more – Vlakfontein was isolated enough to be missed by the English, with any luck – so she should not draw attention to herself.
She said she needed to go one last time. He waited at home while she went and bought substantial supplies of coffee, sugar, golden syrup, Worcester sauce, tinned meat, vinegar, white flour, preserved ginger and condensed milk. And a newspaper. She went in the Cape cart, pulled by the old horse Boetie, the only horse Christiaan had not taken on commando with him. She wore her late mother-in-law’s black kappie and kept herself to herself. The trip took all day. On her return Christiaan left again to rejoin his commando, taking Boetie with him as horses were becoming scarce.
Now the isolation brought to the surface subconscious fears and tensions. She knew that not all men could withstand the demoralising influence of war, and that some became brutes. She tried to keep busy and not to think, but at night rough white and black men forced their way into her dreams.
There was continued friction with Johannes, and sometimes with some of the women. They managed to plant only a fraction of the usual mealie crop. The children were sometimes sick and so was she. Every day the troubles and worries multiplied about her. There was a building and building of tension, with every fibre of her body stretched tight, day after day, night after night, until Christiaan would come riding back and embrace her, and the physical and emotional stress would flow out of her in his embrace, and she would rejoice that he was safe and that her endurance and sacrifices had meaning. And then at night there would be the physical reassurance and pleasure of being touched by his hands and feeling his skin pressed against hers.
But Christiaan was not there and she braced herself to meet whatever came. The last time, before he had left, they had together made a plan for her to escape with the children and the volk before the Khakis came.
It was the time of the great comet with twin tails. When it first appeared Christiaan had told her Siener van Rensburg had seen the comet with its converging tails in a vision five months earlier. He had interpreted it as a great letter V in the sky, which he said stood for Vrede. But others were saying it stood for Verwoesting. To Lizzie it also seemed like a sign – not a letter of the alphabet but a symbol of some kind of duality. She pondered possible meanings as she watched it in the dawn sky, but gave up puzzling to attend to the harsh realities of life.
Lizzie called the volk together and told them about the plan. When they saw smoke on the horizon they were to tell her, and they would inspan the oxen to the covered wagon and they would all leave together, with their supplies, for a distant koppie where a little spring of sweet water flowed and where a screening thicket of thorn trees would conceal them. It lay half a day’s trek away and was a place where she and Christiaan had camped once on a hunting trip. They would trek across the veld and would avoid roads.
Before leaving they would drive all the livestock into the veld and disperse them, except for two cows for milk and five sheep for meat, which would accompany them.
“How long will we stay there?” the volk wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “When it is safe the master will come and find us there.”
She left out only one detail of the plan – a task she had already carried out by moonlight. She had been to the locked drawer in the sideboard and had removed the little strongbox. From it she had counted out ten gold pounds which she had put into her purse, and then she had wrapped the box in an oilcloth and had buried it in the cattle kraal, a foot deep, where the hooves would soon churn up the surface and hide all traces of the buried treasure.
The morning after Lizzie had told the volk about the plan, she awoke to a great silence. Usually the women who helped in the house would be in by now, but nothing was stirring. She went to the back door and saw no-one. She went to the front door and saw Paulus and Thomas running towards the house; she felt panic rising in her as she waited for them trustingly. Florence appeared beside her on the stoep in her nightdress, rubbing her eyes. Lizzie took her hand and held it tight.
The boys arrived breathlessly at the house and could not speak immediately; they had run a long way and their faces showed anguish. Each was carrying a bundle wrapped in a blanket. Both of them were taller than Lizzie, decent-looking boys, Thomas a little taller and leaner than Paulus.
“The volk have all gone, Miesies,” Paulus gasped. “They made us go with them last night but after they had camped we ran away. They took five cows.”
“Where have they gone?” Lizzie cried. “Outa Johannes is taking them far,” said Thomas, “to give themselves up to the English. I don’t know where that is.”
“Why did you come back?”
“We could not leave you, Miesies; you need us,” said Paulus, and Thomas nodded.
“What about your parents?”
“As Miesies knows, our fathers are on commando with the master. They will not desert him. Our mothers, and the little children, will also come back when they can. They told us so when we went to say goodbye to them. But not now, because Outa will not let them.”
The boys were cousins; Johannes was their grandfather.
“Will Johannes give us away to the English?”
Thomas and Paulus looked at each other and slowly shook their heads. Lizzie understood this to mean that they did not know.
She heard Louise calling her from inside the house. She half turned and then said to the boys: “Come around to the kitchen door. I’ll give you some bread and coffee.”
Later the boys went to their old homes to sleep, and after Lizzie had fed and dressed the children she sat at the kitchen table and picked at a slice of bread and butter.
The next day they all tried to settle into a new way of running the farm. Paulus and Thomas saw to the cattle and the sheep, Lizzie attended to the vegetable garden and cooked food for all of them, and even the little girls helped by collecting eggs from the chicken-run. At lunch time and in the evening the boys came to the kitchen door and were given plates of food.
Life continued in this way for just three days, and then a little before noon on the fourth day Thomas came to Lizzie while she was weeding the vegetable beds and said that there was smoke on the eastern horizon.
She ran around the house to look. In the windless sky a column of dark smoke was rising from a distant point. Apart from that, nothing was different, but she imagined Johannes standing beside a Khaki and pointing in the direction of Vlakfontein.
“Go and call Paulus,” she said quietly to Thomas. “We will carry out our plan now.”
They inspanned the lowing oxen to the wagon, and attached its stained sailcloth cover. The boys carried the chests and baskets of clothing and food, a big sack of dried mealies, milk cans of water, three mattresses and piles of bedding, tents, cooking pots, the coffee grinder, a hand-grinder for mealies, a tin bath, the medicine chest, assorted tools and buckets, and all the other paraphernalia needed for a trek, and Lizzie directed them how to pack the wagon.
“Go and roll up your own bedding and bring it,” Lizzie told them.
“We left it behind with our mothers when we ran away. We have only the two blankets.”
“Then go into the house and take two more mattresses and two pillows and two more blankets for yourselves.”
The girls brought their dolls and dolls’ clothes, their toy kitchenware inherited from Ouma Liesbet and the tiny wooden wagon and clay oxen their father had made for them.
While Paulus and Thomas were stacking and compressing the mattresses in the back of the wagon, Lizzie went around to the front of the house to look at the smoke. It had grown a little bigger and darker. She strained her ears for distant sounds of war, but all she could hear were the muted sounds of the veld and the voices of the boys as they hurried to secure the load. Then she went into the house and unlocked the gun cupboard: Christiaan’s Mauser and his Colt revolver had gone with him on commando, and all that remained was the battered Martini-Henry that Christiaan had inherited from his father.
Lizzie used both hands to pick up the heavy single-shot rifle and lean it against the wall. She took the three boxes of cartridges and the pull-through and the bottle of gun oil. The Martini-Henry was a brutal thing that was too heavy for her to hold steady and it kicked like a mule, but she had fired a few rounds with it once, at Christiaan’s insistence, though the bruise on her shoulder had lasted for a week.
Placing the cartridges and the cleaning kit in her knitting basket, she was about to put the rifle over her shoulder when she remembered something else and ran to another cupboard, for the family bible with their genealogy inscribed in the front and their birth, baptism and marriage certificates tucked in the back.
When she went outside Thomas was adjusting the harnesses of the eight oxen he had inspanned, and Paulus was coming back towards the farmyard driving five sheep in front of him; the two cows were already tethered to the rear of the wagon. The rest of the cattle and sheep had been turned loose to graze the plentiful grass and to await whatever fate might be theirs. In the meantime their water troughs near the wind pump would remain full, as water from the tank dripped into them via a system that Christiaan had devised. The door of the chicken-run stood open, so the occupants could come and go as they pleased. Only a few would be coming along.
Sliding the rifle and ammunition under the children’s bedding, behind the driver’s seat where it could be easily reached, Lizzie heard the alarmed cackling of laying hens in a cage made of reeds which now stood atop one of the chests.
“Just one more thing,” she said, and ran back into the house, taking off her floral kappie. When she came back she had the kappie in her hand and her newest straw boater on her head, the one with the broad red ribbon.
“Are we ready?” she asked, lifting the girls into the front of the wagon and taking the driver’s seat. Paulus took up his position as touleier, while Thomas brought up the rear, driving the sheep. Lizzie cracked the whip expertly above the oxen’s backs, Paulus tugged from the front, and the wagon creaked and lurched forward. They turned west and began to lumber across the veld. The two dogs barked and trotted unnecessarily around and around the wagon and the team of oxen, their tails high and their pink tongues lolling.
It was then that she was overtaken by a momentary sense of panic. She had been so busy and efficient and now she was sitting still with time to think. She had, of necessity, acted decisively and independently, the commandant of her own little commando. But was she in full command of the situation, and would she continue to be so as it unfolded? Maybe there was such a thing as too much independence for a woman.
Lizzie took a deep breath, exhaled, then turned to look at Florence and Louise, who were sitting on their pillows, making their dolls comfortable too. She turned for a last look at the house. She had locked the doors and taken the keys with her, in what was no more than a symbolic gesture.
“I wonder whether I will see my house again?” she asked herself. She had always been particular to keep her house clean and in good order. It was a great wrench to leave it. A pretty, welcoming house on a farm, with its row of poplar trees, an abundance of livestock, a well-tended vegetable garden, a little peach orchard and some prickly-pears, had always seemed to her the epitome of a happy life. Perhaps she was too proud of their material possessions, but she could not help it. Her heart was sore to leave them all behind.
But later, as they made their measured progress across the vast landscape, she saw that the veld too was beautiful and welcoming. The western Transvaal had enjoyed a wonderful rainy season that summer, and there was evidence of it everywhere – the moist ground was a deep red and the leaves of the thorn trees were a rich green, even though summer had turned to autumn now, and the blue of the sky was broken by only a few white clouds. Ephemeral streams were still flowing, and she could see many birds and hear their calls above the slow, plodding thuds of the oxen’s hooves and the rattling and creaking of the wagon.
How could it look and feel like this, when the world was so full of suffering and death? How could the curse of war and the blessing of rain co-exist? Her thoughts drifted back to the war and she wondered what would happen to the Boer nation if it lost the war – an outcome that was beginning to look more and more likely.
As they trekked across other people’s land she glimpsed a distant farmhouse, and later another, but there were no signs of activity, and they plodded on. In the late afternoon, after a few slight changes of direction, they saw their destination ahead of them, the unnamed stone koppie with its curtain of thorn trees around the base. She remembered how she and Christiaan had made love in their tent under the trees, on that far-off winter’s night when they had been hunting there, whispering their love to each other so that they would not be heard by the other hunters and their families who were camped all around them.
They pulled the wagon well into the trees, to hide it from the Khakis, and pitched their two tents under the overhanging branches. The mallet blows on the wooden tent pegs echoed against the koppie and silenced the birds until the intrusive sound stopped. The water from the little spring filled pools that were also in the shade, so the livestock obligingly concealed themselves as well.
Paulus and Thomas collected firewood and then constructed a screen with a spare groundsheet, to reduce the risk of the flames being seen from the plains once it became dark. The boys unpacked everything that was needed from the wagon and Lizzie prepared a meal of salt beef and potatoes. Then Thomas brought Lizzie a bucket of warmed water and she washed the little girls inside the tent before feeding them and putting them to bed. Later she sat on a folding stool near the fire and ate her supper, with the boys eating theirs nearby. Before she went to bed she walked to the edge of the trees and looked at the starry sky. The great comet, with its twin tails, hung there silently proclaiming its unfathomable prophecy.
In the morning Lizzie rose early and, leaving the girls sleeping, again walked to the edge of the trees, to look out across the plains. The white light of dawn was smudged with diffused patterns of dark smoke that contained a coded story of misery and despair. A feeling of foreboding crept over her and she hurried back to her tent to look at her daughters’ sleeping faces, to see the rapid movements of their eyelids and their soft breathing as they wandered in some dreamland that Lizzie would never know.
The day passed uneventfully as they settled resiliently into domestic routines, as though they were at home. Wood was collected, food prepared, even some clothes were washed. They kept busy. Now and then Lizzie went to look across the plains and in the afternoon she saw what appeared to be new columns of smoke rising, this time from points closer than the one that had started them on their journey.
The next morning Thomas said he felt like climbing the koppie to get a view of the land on the other side, but that Paulus would stay at the camp to be of service to them.
“Yes,” said Lizzie, “go and have a look, and come and tell us what you see.”
When Thomas had been away for three hours Lizzie became worried and started calling to him but all she heard in return was her own voice echoing against the koppie. When he did return, an hour later, he did not come down the koppie but around it. He was breathless with excitement and exertion.
Lizzie made him sit down and drink some water, and then demanded to know what he had seen or found.
His story came out in fits and starts, sometimes in the wrong sequence, sometimes leaving out essential elements, but gradually Lizzie grasped it all. At first she was worried.
“Did you tell anyone that we are here?” she asked him sharply.
“No, Miesies, I just said there is a white lady not very far away, and when I left them I first walked the wrong way so they would not know where I was going.”
The essence of his story was that from the top of the koppie he had seen what had looked to him like a black settlement perhaps half an hour’s walk away. Out of curiosity he had walked towards it and had hidden in trees near a small stream to observe it, when he was surprised by two Tswana men – people of Thomas’s own tribe – who had grasped him roughly but had then released him when he said who he was and where he was from.
It turned out that the settlement was a temporary one – they were former farm labourers who had been there for three weeks, having come five days’ walk from the east to escape the Khakis. There were twelve of them – fourteen now, he corrected himself – and they had escaped minutes before the Khakis arrived to burn down their employers’ farm and take the white women and children away. Their miesies had told them to run.
They had been compelled to move slowly because one of the women among them – the wife of an agterryer who was away on commando with his master – had been heavily pregnant and had had to rest often. They had no sooner reached their destination when the woman, known as Catharina, had given birth to a healthy boy. He had become the thirteenth member of their little community.
“And who is the fourteenth?” Lizzie asked Thomas.
“Well, Miesies, that is the most important part of the story. After they been at their camp for three days they were out collecting firewood when they saw a cart with a hood standing in the veld with a donkey still in harness trying to graze. At first they could see no people but when they got closer they heard a baby crying, and they found a sick white woman, her body like fire, curled up on the floor of the cart with her baby in a basket on the back seat.
“They tried to give her water, but she was barely conscious, so they led the donkey and cart back to their camp and they carried the woman into a shelter, where she died after a few hours and they buried her. They took the baby to Catharina, who was breast-feeding her own child, and she fed the white baby too, and he – for it was also a boy – became content, so she has been looking after him ever since.
“When I told them I was travelling with my miesies they said they cannot keep a white baby and they said I must ask you to take him.”
Thomas concluded his story and waited for Lizzie’s answer.
“But Thomas, I can’t take a baby. It needs mother’s milk. The woman – Catharina – will need to keep the baby, if she has enough milk, at least until it can eat solid food and drink cow’s milk. It would be very dangerous to try that now.”
Thomas pondered her reply. He did not know how to proceed.
“I would come with you tomorrow, to talk to them about it,” Lizzie said, “ but I can’t leave the girls here and it’s too far for them to walk. I must think about what to do.”
Paulus, who had been listening in silence, spoke up.
“Could those people not bring the woman and the baby here in the donkey cart?”
Lizzie considered the risk of disclosing the whereabouts of their secret camp.
“No, you’re right, Paulus, that is what we should do if they are willing. Thomas, tell them to send along any papers the dead woman might have had with her, so we can try to trace her family in due time. Meanwhile, I can look at the baby and see if it is well and has not caught an infection from its mother. And we can spare some rations to give Catharina to take back with her, to make sure she is well nourished.”
The next day, shortly before noon, one of the Tswana men arrived at Lizzie’s camp driving the cart with Thomas sitting next to him. In the back seat was Catharina and both babies, sleeping together in the white baby’s reed basket on the floor. The young mother looked about seventeen or eighteen. She had brought a bundle of possessions with her.
Courteous introductions were made, then Lizzie examined the white baby as best she could, and in doing so woke him and he began to cry lustily. Catharina picked him up and attached him to her breast, and he sucked greedily. The little boy certainly seemed healthy enough.
Just then the black baby awoke, so instinctively Lizzie picked him up and rocked him while his mother gave his competitor another minute or two. Then they exchanged babies and Lizzie patted the white baby’s back for wind. How familiar it felt!
As soon as she started talking to Catharine about what was to be done with the white baby it became apparent that they were talking at cross purposes. Lizzie was trying to tell her that she would offer her assistance and then send her back to her people to look after the white baby until it was older, but Catharine, who had been a house servant and who spoke reasonable Dutch, was insistent that she had come to stay with the miesies.
“I have not heard from my husband for six months,” she said, “and I think he must be dead. I want to stay with you and I’ll feed the little white one and then give him to you. But I will stay with you.”
Lizzie did not know what to say. Life was so uncertain. She did not know whether she still had a home to go back to. How could she take responsibility for three more human beings? But it was difficult to resist babies.
She asked about the dead woman’s papers, but none had been found. She must have fled her home at very short notice, and had probably already been feeling ill.
“All right,” she said, “you can stay. We’ll make a plan.”
The man who had brought her stood up.
“I would like to keep the cart and donkey, Miesies,” he said. “That will help us very much.”
Lizzie hesitated for a moment, then said: “They are not mine to give – but you should keep them in the meantime.”
She ordered Paulus and Thomas to slaughter a sheep and to give half the mutton to the man to take back with him. While he was waiting for the meat he took an object from his pocket and gave it to Lizzie. It was a locket in the shape of a heart: she opened it and saw the photo of a young man, and guessed he was the baby’s father.
The boys gave up their tent to the mother and babies, and made themselves a shelter out of spare sailcloth. The little community under the trees adjusted and settled down. Whenever the babies became too much for Catharina, Lizzie took one and walked in the trees, rocking him and singing lullabies. She cut up towels to make nappies.
“What is your son’s name?” asked Lizzie, and Catharine replied: “I have called him Petrus.”
“Does the white baby have a name?”
“I think we should call him Moses.”
Several times a day Lizzie walked to the edge of the trees and looked across the plains. A day came when all traces of smoke had gone, and the land had a semblance of peace. She decided it was time to go back. Who knew when Christiaan would come to find them? What if he could not come? Having helpless babies to care for changed everything.
They approached Vlakfontein cautiously, and when the homestead was almost in sight Paulus and Thomas crept forward to reconnoitre while Catharine lay in the wagon with the babies and Lizzie controlled the dogs and the livestock. When the boys came back they looked distraught.
“It is burnt down,” said Thomas. It looked as though he had tears in his eyes.
“Are there any people there?” Lizzie asked, her voice hard.
“No people. No livestock. Nothing.”
When they reached the farmyard Lizzie could not stop herself from crying. The tears came in floods, and she did not even attempt to wipe them away.
The wind pump was still working, and the troughs were full. Paulus took one sheep to drink, and they waited for half an hour before they let the other animals go to the troughs. At least the water had not been poisoned.
Nor had the whole house burnt. Over the kitchen and pantry the roof was still more or less intact, and that became the nucleus of their home camp. Thomas and Paulus used the tools from the wagon to cut and shape new roof timbers from the poplar trees. They straightened scorched iron roof sheets and nailed them up again. They cleared away the burnt remains of Lizzie’s former life and made part of the house habitable. They repaired two of the labourers’ cottages – one for them to share and one for Catharine and her baby.
They found potatoes in the vegetable garden, and pumpkin plants growing; there was also some food left over from their trek. They would plant mealies in the spring. Lizzie ensured that Catharine always had enough to eat, so that she would have milk, and the babies would thrive.
Catharine was a willing worker, and Lizzie was content to mind the babies between feeds. She set a mattress on the floor in the kitchen and put them on it, and watched the little blond one and the little black one wriggling on their backs, moving their arms and legs jerkily as babies do, touching each other.
A strange feeling came to Lizzie, but she did not understand the feeling, or what it meant.
“They are like twins,” Catharine said, laughing.
Lizzie was silent for a while.
“They were foretold,” she said, and smiled.
In the middle of the following year, when the war was finally lost, Christiaan signed the oath of allegiance and rode home, with his agterryers. All three had survived physically, but their eyes told another story.
Using their little hidden store of gold coins, he bought building materials and started to rebuild the house.
Christiaan was bemused by the two toddlers, and said very little, except that a black woman should not be feeding a white baby and keeping it with her in her cottage at night. Lizzie said that suitable food for babies was so scarce that breast milk was essential. There was no other way.
Florence and Louise played with the babies as if they were live dolls.
A month later some of the volk came back; they had been in a concentration camp, where Johannes, and one of Paulus’s little sisters, had died. They brought back a disease with them, and another child died. A week later Catharine did not come to work, and Lizzie found her lying feverish in her cottage, and both babies screaming.
Tears of panic came to her eyes. She snatched up the babies, ran to the house, and sat them down on the kitchen floor.
“Watch them,” she ordered Christiaan, ran back to Catharine to put a wet cloth on her forehead, and called one of the other women to sit with her.
Lizzie saw Thomas.
“Take the milking bucket,” she cried, “and quickly get me a little milk from one of the cows.”
When Thomas came back with the milk Lizzie diluted it with water and held a cup to each of the babies’ mouths in turn. They did not like it and took only a little. Later they were very hungry and thirsty and they drank more. They had grown accustomed to eating a little mealie-meal porridge so she made them some and they took it willingly. Later she fed them mashed pumpkin and mashed potato.
Two days later Catharine died and they buried her with the other volk who had gone before.
Christiaan said: “We must find new homes for these babies. Many people – Boers and kaffirs – have lost children in the camps and will be pleased to have them.”
Lizzie said nothing, but later she showed him the locket with the picture in it.
“I will take this picture to the Red Cross in Potchefstroom,” he said, “to see if the child’s father can be traced.”
“Moses’ father,” said Lizzie.
“And perhaps one of the women among our volk will take the kaffir baby,” he continued.
“Petrus,” she said.
Christiaan took the picture to the Red Cross in Potchefstroom and stayed overnight with an old comrade and his family, returning to Vlakfontein the next day. After a month they had heard nothing.
Lizzie said: “I would like us to adopt Moses.”
“And if none of our women wants the kaffir child I will speak to Dominee Rall about arranging adoption for him,” he said.
“I want Petrus too,” said Lizzie.
He stared at her in disbelief. “You can’t,” he said. “It is not our way.”
She began to cry.
“No,” he said. “It cannot be. It is unnatural. And I don’t want one of our farm women to take him either. He must leave Vlakfontein, so that you cannot see him any more.”
Lizzie begged, but Christiaan was firm. He rode into the dorp and came back in the afternoon, with the dominee following just behind in his Cape cart.
Ds. Rall said: “I can understand your deep concern for the kaffir child. It does you credit. But you cannot keep him for yourself. It is not the way of our people.”
And he asked for all Petrus’s belongings, then he took the crying toddler and put him in the cart.
“I will find a good home for him,” he said, climbing up to the seat.
He turned to them again.
“I will see to it that he is baptised.”
Lizzie stood frozen.
“It meant Verwoesting,” she said, but Christiaan did not understand her words.
In the years that followed, while their world slowly restored itself, Moses grew up like their own son, and Lizzie bore her husband two more daughters. She was an exemplary mother and she loved all five of her children dearly.
The children started, one by one, to go to school in the dorp; they were weekly boarders. After the family had been to church on Sundays they visited friends and later took the schoolgoing children to the hostel; but Lizzie insisted that every Friday she would take the Cape cart into the dorp herself, to do her shopping and collect the children.
She became a familiar figure in the dorp, neatly dressed and always wearing a straw boater with a broad, colourful ribbon around the crown. She was always walking, walking along the streets, and people noticed one very curious thing about her: whenever she saw a little black boy she would walk up to him and look into his face. Later she looked into the faces of black adolescent boys as well, and even young men. When Christiaan happened to be with her, it caused him embarrassment.
But when the last of her children had finished school she seldom went to the dorp any more, and contented herself with being a good grandmother to Florence’s baby boy, who lived with his parents in one of the new houses they had built on the farm.