“You can’t come with! You can’t come!” James gloated, “only boys!” Crowing, he swivelled toward my father for adult confirmation.
“Tell her Dad! Tell her!” Begging! Barely able to contain his delight in delivering the bad news! I like to imagine the brief hesitation in my father’s reply was genuine sorrow at my exclusion but his patriarchal upbringing pervaded his sense of justice and he delivered the words I swore, then and there, that I would never say to my own daughters;
“Girl’s can’t do this honey! Only boys!”
James launched himself into a victory lap round the verandah table. Normally I would have kicked out at his dancing legs, crashing him onto the red concrete floor before leaping onto his chest and physically pounding him with anger, usually a pointless exercise as he was bigger and stronger than me but the beautiful pleasure of his surprise at my audacity was often worth the bruised reminders of my foolish temper. Not today.
Today I was too shocked to move as I pondered the previously unheard words: Girls can’t do this! Only boys! What on earth did that mean? My stomach ached as if a muscle had been twisted leaving me breathless and physically pained at this new revelation. Being a girl apparently rendered one, not only different but worse; lesser! Nine years old. In one sentence, reduced by the simple demerit of being, a girl! There it was. Out in the open! An indelible stamp on my forehead labelling me; “Girl”. I knew right then, that there was another, unwritten stamp below it but in larger, bolder, capitals saying “Inferior”.
Too shocked to cry, my legs sank me to the cold floor as my oldest ally, anger, melted its heat into the concrete, ebbing away in the thin slivers of my confidence.
“Emma, get up off the floor immediately”. Mother, brisk and capable, hauled me to my feet, tsk tsk’ing at the sight of red floor polish all over my shorts as she shovelled me and my little sister Jenny into the backseat of the car, whilst James and my father secured the rifle cases in the boot before climbing in for the trip.
I started intently at Jenny, surprised she couldn’t notice something different about me but she was only six and started to cry, so I turned back to the window and watched the scenery change as rapidly as my life. It usually took just over an hour and a half to reach the Ellwood’s farm from our house. A quick 20 minute drive north on tar to their turnoff, then a slower pace on the gravel roads, punctuated at regular intervals by rickety farm gates. Each gate had to be shifted, and shoved, resident cattle shooed and shuffled aside, to allow the car through, before being wrestled closed again. It was James’s and my job to handle the gates in turn.
As our car breached the top of Giraffe Hill, as we called it after almost running into one on an earlier trip to the Ellwood’s, the first gate hove in to view, not a cow in sight and James eagerly bagged opening it. My heart sank as we approached the second gate. A herd of cattle were camped in the road on the far side and there were at least two new calves tucked into the side of their mothers. The car stopped and I waited a micro second. Sometimes, if there were a lot of cattle, my mom or dad would volunteer to do the gate. These cattle were free range in a low rainfall area. They roamed paddocks consisting of hundreds of acres. Leopard, jackals, hyena, cheetah and lion still hunted on these huge ranches and these cattle, even dehorned were notably skittish, especially mothers of newborns. On any other day I would have asked my Dad to help me but my forehead itched. Scratching it, I opened my car door.
My feet sank into hot gray talc. I loved the feel of this earth, warm and soft as an angel’s kiss between my toes and momentarily I was caught in the delight of bare feet on sun soaked ground. Gingerly closing the door I breathed in the semi sweet mix of dust and dung, sharp as freshly mown grass but pungent with the darker, clinging scent of acidic digestive juices. Bush smells! Quickly scanning the thick Mopani shrub behind the car, peering between the russet and pale green leaves, checking for bulls or antelope, I stepped past my mother’s window, catching the tail end of a jeer from James,
“...hurry up scaredy cat!”
“That’s enough James!” Mother uncharacteristically snapped. “Be quiet or get out and help!”
“No! I’m fine!” I glared at James over my mother’s shoulder and boldly strode ten dusty paces to the gate. Grasping a sun warmed, wooden cross piece I hauled the makeshift gate upward with one hand, unhooking the metal chain that held it up and latched to the gate post. The gate was a series of fencing posts bound loosely together with barbed wire and the best way to haul it open was to extend it to it’s fullest stretch so that it was taut above the ground, then sweep it open in a broad rush, leaning hard away from the securing post while the car drove through. The vehicle had to drive a short distance further so that the gate could be closed using the same taut sweeping motion.
At least twenty large cattle eyed me through the gate.
“Dip! Dip! Dip!” All bravado, I yelled, starting to walk toward those lying closest to the gate. An obviously pregnant cow laboured to her feet, rolling her huge brown eyes at me until I could see the white of her eyes. Moaning and lowing she lurched upward, momentum forcing her into my path as she shook her head and I curled my toes in to avoid heavy hooves. Cattle, grouched and stamped, milling dust into my eyes as I inched into their space. Some broke for cover, lumbering into the nearby Mopani scrub but others stood their ground, mewling displeasure.
My father banged on the side of the car, leaning out of the window and whistling, short, sharp piercing pipes, as he inched the car forward, trailing behind me on my slow journey through ninety degrees of heaving, hoofed bovines. Finally there was enough space for the car to pass through and I began my journey back to the fence line, moving as fast as I could, dodging wet dung and glaring at the bolder beasts already moving back into the road. Latching the gate I turned toward the car, now obscured by dust and cattle. Pulling myself up to my greatest height I stepped boldly toward the bovines, faking a bravado which fooled them, as they reluctantly parted to let me through and some trailed right behind me all the way back to the vehicle. I could feel their curious breath lifting my hair as they sniffed and snorted, the smell of their sun warmed hides a curious mix of milk and musk and a shockingly cold, wet nose brushed my arm as I wrenched the door open.
Sinking into my seat I rubbed my forehead as James glared at me, confirming my belief that he would have asked for help.
The remaining gates were thankfully cattle free although we did startle a group of impala at the last one and James made a great show of not being afraid of the dainty beasts as they hopped and skipped over imaginary shrubs in their hasty escape down the fire break.
The Ellwood’s farm house sat high above the Buybe river. Sheltered by ancient riverine trees, the elegant double storey with wrap around verandah squatted in the middle of a vast, luscious lawn. The driveway skirted elegant rose bushes, their bright colours a delight after such a long hot drive through scrappy Mopani scrub. Sweeping flower beds banked and beckoned under the hot sun as we parked near the back verandah under trees shrugged in flaming bougainvillea. Before the dust settled, a small army of people opened our car doors, calling greetings as they unloaded us and all our belongings, then swept us through the house and onto the wide and welcoming, front verandah overlooking the pool, where morning tea had been laid out and the Ellwood family were waiting to cut the cakes.
Hats were raised and removed as each of the Ellwood boys stood to greet my parents and dogs were shoved off chairs for guests. Clare, the only daughter and two years younger than me pushed past her older brothers to introduce Jenny and I to her newest pet, a tiny bat eared fox with the largest ears I had ever seen attached to such a small body. Engrossed in the fox we wouldn’t have noticed the hunting party leave if James hadn’t taken one last opportunity to call out my name and wave as they drove away from the house in a bakkie bristling with weaponry. Rubbing my forehead, I didn’t respond as they disappeared in a cloud of dust.
The two little girls had put the nocturnal fox to sleep in a dolls pram and were fighting to push the stroller around the pool. Restless, I wandered away making my way toward the enormous kitchen where I knew Chef’s daughter Edith, would be shelling peas or peeling potatoes. Edith was a buxom, cheerful girl, always keen to share stories about her grandmother while she worked and sometimes she let me help her, although only when Chef had checked that my mother and Mrs Ellwood were engrossed in conversation at the far end of the garden. Chef was famous for his baking and his guinea fowl and apple casserole was already simmering near the bottom of the wood stove that dominated and overheated the kitchen. Yeast and roast apple, scented a fever of activity as people scurried and hurried to Chef’s bidding. I found Edith out the back in a shady spot near the water tower, which always dripped a cool mist of spray from the top and was a hidden refuge behind a high privet hedge. The two of us peeled and chopped sweet potatoes, throwing the skins to curious chickens and tame guinea fowl who scratched and prodded the back lawn.
“I won’t be seeing you again” Edith smiled. “I am to be married next month at my mother’s kraal near Nwanetsi.”
I was shocked! “But you are only fifteen!” I blurted.
“I am Chef’s fifth daughter. There are two young sons starting school next year. Do you think my father can afford to keep a girl at school when he has boys to raise?”
She sounded haughty which was a surprise to me. I wanted to hear about her grandmother’s father, a great chief with four wives who had to let him seat himself in their laps whenever the ground was wet. I didn’t want Edith to get married and move away!
“My father says everyone has to go to school until they are sixteen,” I pouted “it’s the law!”
To my surprise Edith cackled with laughter. “It’s the law!” she trilled. “Oh you poor baby!” She stood, gathering up her dishes and utensils before stomping toward the kitchen. “I’m a girl!” she threw over her shoulder from the door and I touched my forehead.
Three hours later the hunting party returned. The dogs barked and bounced at the smell of blood as the dust settled round the bakkie, now laden with the bodies of a wildebeest and kudu bull. Male voices pitched in adrenalin, shouted as they jumped down from the vehicle, their boots trailing blood in the dust as they called for Chef and cold beers. Chef yelled for assistants who dropped what they were doing to unload the beasts and hang them in the screened butchery not far from the water tower. Mrs Ellwood and mother admonished the boys to take off their shoes and clean up for lunch. I watched Edith, weighted with cold beers and cokes, place her burden on the coffee table where we had earlier been served tea and cake.
“She’s getting married next month.” Mrs Ellwood sounded tired as she poured herself and my mother a cold gin and tonic.
“She’s too young,” Mother whispered.
“She’s black Elizabeth! There is no choice involved. I have tried ...” she trailed off, a curious mix of irritation and exasperation in her tone heralding closure on the subject.
Mrs Ellwood turned back to the table to uncap bottles as the men reappeared, slightly cleaner but still musty with blood and sweat. The males drank deeply, slaking dust from the tales of their hunt which were mulled over at length throughout lunch, with the possible exception of James who sat quietly picking at his food.
After lunch people dispersed, some to the pool, the adults opting for the cool verandah and a long afternoon tea, the little girls following the fox. The front of the house was peaceful, sleepy and relaxed. I wandered round to the back of the kitchen looking for Edith among the furious dishwashers and frenzied dinner preparations but Chef told me she had gone to the compound already to help her mother prepare their dinner. I followed Chef to the butchery where the spoils were now hanging from giant hooks by their hind legs. Their throats were slit and blood dripped into buckets. I gazed into the huge brown eyes of the kudu bull. The eyelashes surprised me at their delicate length.
“Three hundred sticks of biltong in this neck!” Chef ran his hands down the kudu’s neck. “This one is big!” He picked up a huge knife and yelled for his assistants.
“Is Edith really getting married?” I asked Chef as we waited for his team to arrive.
“Yes.” Chef answered.
“Does she want to get married?” I asked.
Chef smiled at me a little sadly, “Doesn’t every girl want to get married?”
I stared into the beautiful dead eye of the kudu. “My Mom says she is too young.” Death’s proximity making me bold.
“Not for a black girl” Chef nicked the taut skin between the kudu’s hind legs before inserting it, quickly tracing a line from rear to throat. Working methodically, he gutted the creature, this morning a proud bull, now a piece of meat. I touched my fragile forehead as the assistants arrived and Chef inclined his head toward the door. Walking away from the butchery I found James kicking a stone in the dust near our car. He stopped for a moment and gave me a sad smile. Rubbing my forehead, I went inside as I heard my parents calling for Jenny. We were going home.
The sun hastily dropped into black tropical night so my father opened and closed all the gates on the way home. As he wrestled with my gate, I leaned into my mother’s arm and quietly asked, “Mommy, what is it like to be black?”
Mother pulled my head close and kissed me on my forehead whispering, “Tougher than being a girl.”