They called it the Grey Highway and it was the loneliest road in the world. What was once a popular and convenient route had been eroded by the slow subtraction of neglect until it was dry and desperate. The road, crumbled and broken in parts, terminated at an abandoned town a few hundred kilometres north of De Aar and south of the bitter Auob River. When the final particle of ore had been dug up the town was shut down and its buildings remanded back to the desert.
It was being swallowed by the dunes. A single, shallow grave lay half-digested in a clearing. A tombstone of unhewn rock sank into it. The epitaph, crude and scratched in haste, read: "Here lies Thomas Pyle. Husband, father and last resident of Kanniedood."
Few travelled this road now, because they no longer needed to get where it was going.
"Where are we going Tom?" asked his reflection in the rear-view mirror.
"We're going to see a someone," he replied.
It had been days since Tom had spoken. He had not uttered a word when they threaded through the Valley of Desolation near Graaf-Reinet, where grotesque dolerite erosions towered a hundred meters overhead, nor when they happened by Touwsrivier, where the steam engines went to die. He had begun to think himself like a monk, as if his silence were a vow, self-inflicted and noble. They approached a station. "Pit Stop" read the sign, and its sticky plastic glossed in the morning sun, as though it might melt. Tom decided they would pull over for fuel and a trip to the bathroom. He parked and closed the door. It wouldn't lock, but that didn't matter.
He closed the cubicle door behind him. He preferred the privacy. The extractor fan swept a sleepy breeze over him and he closed his eyes as he urinated. Afterwards, he washed his hands and didn't need a paper towel to dry them.
"Is it the lady?" Tom looked up at the bathroom mirror and saw his reflection looking back at him again.
"The someone we're going to see. Is it the lady?" his reflection asked again.
"No, it's not the lady."
It raised a sceptical eyebrow. "I know that she lives near here."
"It's not the lady."
"You can tell me if it is. I won't get mad."
"It's not the lady. It's someone else."
"Someone you don't remember."
At the pump, he filled the tank until petrol sputtered from the hose. There wouldn't be another station and he would need enough to get to Kanniedood and back again. He paid for the fuel, bought a bottle of sparkling water and they set off again. The car was a Toyota bakkie on its final journey. It had no radio and no air conditioner and it veered to the left. While it had once been hardy, today it rattled and read the slightest cracks in the road as a Braille of cliffs and craters. But it was a simple vehicle and with the right tools Tom could fix almost anything.
The exhaust coughed as he took the onramp onto the Grey Highway. The Karoo seemed even more barren here. Cruel little bushes and wire-thin grass and little else besides. His reflection blurred in the mirror with every jolt of the chassis and when it looked back at Tom its eyes widened with enthusiasm. Suddenly it said: "When we get there can we read outside? I like it when we read outside."
Tom chuckled. "You like it when we read? But I do all the reading!"
"Yes, you do the reading but I like sitting in the window and feeling the sun on the glass. And I like it when the trees go shush-shush-shush when they're talking to each other."
"You think they're talking?"
"To each other yes. We don't understand it because we don't speak tree. We must learn to speak tree sometime."
There was something else on the reflection's mind. He glanced in the mirror and could see the reflection was trying to decide whether or not to tell him, but Tom already knew what it was. "Why don't you like the lady?" he asked.
"Just because?" He knew his reflection hadn't approved of the lady, the geologist who had lived with him for four years. He remembered their making breakfast and talking the happy nonsense of a couple when Tom would glimpse his frowning reflection in the kettle. Then she had left on assignment and Tom hadn't followed.
"I don't like her because you loved her more than me."
"That's not true."
"And because you spent so much time with her that the two of you became one person and because her reflection was there too."
"Yes that happens."
"It was crowded. It was good that she left," the reflection insisted.
Tom stared straight ahead. "She didn't leave. I left."
"And then when she left it hurt you. When you slept I saw you hold the pillow in your arms because you thought she was still there. It made you sad. I don't want the lady to do that to you again."
"There is that risk, yes."
"But why do people take the risk? Why, when they already have reflections who love them?"
"Other people are surprising because they are different. That is why you mustn't be jealous of her. You and I are the same one and we will always find each other."
"Yes I promise." Tom wished his reflection wasn't so dependent. Reflections are anxious creatures but berating them for being cowards only made them more cowardly. "You mustn't worry about being apart so much," he said. "You are my reflection and you go wherever I go. That is what a reflection is."
The reflection seemed satisfied and resumed its pleasant demeanour, watching the landscape fly past. It enjoyed being a passenger. "It's very hot today," it said, "and the sky is clear and very blue."
"Yes it is."
They passed a farmhouse, ragged and clattering in the wind. It was a bizarre spectacle, inexplicable for its persistence in a landscape so devoid of life. But for a cursory glance, neither Tom nor his reflection took much notice.
"Maybe we can go for a walk! I love walking in the city!"
"You like all the shiny surfaces."
"Yes! Because I can bounce around from the shop windows to the car mirrors and hop, hop, hop all over the place! The more shinies the better!"
"See, you like going off on your own sometimes." Perhaps Tom could train it to be more confident in increments. "So we will do that. When we get back to the city though. This is not a city we are driving to, it is a town. You won't find much to hop onto there. It is a very old town and everything in the town is rusty and covered in dust."
"And the person we're visiting lives in the town?"
"The person is in the town, yes."
The road was featureless and the power lines traced the apparently infinite line between where he was and where he was going. He was entranced by the beat of the skeletal structures that carried the power lines and the haze that swelled from the heat of the road.
The sun gleamed on. His eyelids became heavy. He drifted off.
He was woken suddenly by a rude rumbling and it occurred to him he was driving off the road. He instinctively stepped on the brake pedal but it was too late. A plume of dust shot up and obscured his view and he heard the crunch of buckling metal as he hit something solid. The cloud settled and Tom looked through the cracked windshield in disbelief. He undid his seatbelt and crawled out of the wreck and gazed upward in awe.
In front of him bulked a great Quiver Tree. The lower limbs had been hacked off and an effort made at the whole, as evidenced by a slight notch in the trunk, but the tree still stood, monolithic and permanent. The Toyota was insignificant against it, like a wasp trying to move a mountain. Nothing for kilometres in every direction and he had hit this. He hopelessly inspected the damage. The front axle had disconnected and the engine lay churning in the sand. Despite his complete toolset and expertise, the Toyota had reached its final resting place.
Tom squinted at the distance. "I saw a farmhouse a while back," he said.
"How far was it?"
"I don't know, but I have to go."
"We'll go where ever you say."
He turned to his reflection in the side mirror and it read the concern in his eyes.
"It's all desert. There won't be any shinies for you."
"No! You mustn't leave me."
"Come on, you can't make such a fuss every time we separate. I have to go. If I stay here I will die from thirst."
"Maybe someone will come."
"No one will come."
"Tom, you promised always!"
"I need you to be brave. Everything will be fine once I get there. I have to go now."
He knew he wouldn't be able to carry much. What had taken an hour to drive would take nearly a day by foot and he couldn't be sure how far back the farmhouse had been. In a small backpack he stowed the bottle of water, an extra shirt to shade his face from the sun and some warm clothes in case night fell before he arrived. He left his baggage behind. Once at the farmhouse he could get a lift back to collect everything. Then he set off and heard his reflection whimpering as he left.
Tom had no thoughts but for following the road. He did not know how long it had been. It had to be hours because the sun was setting. Amidst the coarse scrub veld he spotted something which lured him off the road and out of his daze. He closed in on it cautiously and his mouth gaped, astounded. It looked miserable and hideous, and strangely appealing, like a land-borne jellyfish. Tom knew this plant, because it was the namesake of the town he was visiting: Tweeblaarkanniedood – the Welwitschia. His mother had shown him drawings. He was staring right at it but knew it shouldn't be there. It was endemic to a small region in the Namib desert. Enthusiasts collected them, even from the Angolan border, weaving between landmines as they went. It was often called a living fossil because it lived for thousands of years and could grow up to four metres across. This one seemed small and young and it was alone. It must have been brought here by someone, and outlived them.
Seeing it elicited an uncanny sensation. The Karoo was nasty and cruel but there was an embarrassment of living things. With little water and unbearable heat, these beings always found a way to hang on. Life here was both tenuous and tenacious, he thought, as he carried on.
The sky was flooded in streaks of fierce red and ochre light as the sun plunged past the horizon.
Tom woke drenched in sweat.
His arms were sunburnt, his lips were chapped and his throat rough from empty swallowing. He surveyed his surroundings and was confused by light coming from the wrong direction. Some desert features had shifted in the night. He had no idea of time or bearing and an uneasy thought heaved up from his chest as he stood. He made for the farmhouse, for where he reasoned it ought to be.
The flowers of the Hoodia smelt like rotting flesh and flies were drawn towards it. All around him, the reek of carrion thickened and the acrid taste of bile rose in his gullet. He suddenly felt sick and stopped dead in his tracks. Someone was coming closer.
Even in the simmering heat a chill ran up his spine as he turned. The figure was standing behind him and its limbs were thin and lithe. It waved a hand of spider fingers. They contemplated each other for a moment.
"Hello Tom. We haven't spoken in a long time."
"I was hoping it wouldn't come to this."
The shadow was faceless. Still, Tom had the sense that it was grinning. "That is no way to greet an old friend, Tom. If I'd had any feelings they might have been hurt," it said with an unctuous tone. "Do you not relish our little conversations?"
"The last conversation we had didn't end well."
"Oh, do you think so?"
"You tried to strangle me."
"That was all a misunderstanding Tom. And here we stand regardless. Despite these reservations, you've summoned me because you cannot bear to be alone." Tom didn't answer but started walking in the direction of the farmhouse again. The shadow slithered around so that it was in front of him. "So let us reconcile our past disputes and focus on your current situation," it said.
"You know I won't temper your concerns. You are lost, Tom."
"You are thirsty."
"And you think that you are going to die here like your father."
The motives of a shadow are always inscrutable but he had his suspicions. It detached itself with a little too much enthusiasm when Tom raised his feet off the ground. "Well you will receive no comfort from me, Tom. Your death appears to be likely," it said and it seemed to be thinking in earnest. "However, I will keep you company."
"As always," it nodded.
As he opened the bottle of water and raised it to his mouth, he was startled by a cackle nearby and caught sight of a Jackal Buzzard. It glided above and it when it dipped its black wing to climb a thermal Tom thought it beautiful and was glad for the interruption. Then a cold realisation. The bottle was spilling its last drop of water into the sand.
"Oh I bet you're loving this," he said to his shadow. "You are aren't you? You don't need to be coy. I know what you're plotting."
"The heat is making you paranoid, Tom."
" Scheming, behind my back. You think that when I die, it will be your chance?"
"You want to be a real boy? That's not how this works, Pinocchio. If I go, you go."
"Tom I really don't know where you get these ideas."
"If I go, you go. Remember that."
The bird soared upward and disappeared behind a cloud.
"Let's not quarrel, Tom. I am all you have now."
"Yes, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. It was just the heat."
"The heat, I think, will get worse," it smirked. "Soon it will be midday."
Against his progress a new problem occurred to Tom. Was it possible that he had already passed the farmhouse? He had lost the road and no way seemed to be correct. It was quite possible he was moving in exactly the opposite direction to the one he intended. Every step was met with mounting regret. However, he did not dare turn around - that would undo everything he had achieved so far. He yearned for some clarification, seeing the Welwitschia again perhaps. But the landscape inched past utterly indistinguishable, and always his shadow lurked behind.
More disconcerting was the discovery of a railway line crossing his path. The line vectored all the way to his left and all the way to his right, presenting him with a new axis for consideration. A troubling prospect. Certainly it would lead to something, but how soon? Sooner than the farmhouse? Assuming he was still heading for it? The shadow was silent throughout these deliberations and Tom continued with little conviction or hope.
As the sun reached its zenith, the shadow drew closer and spoke right in his ear.
"Tom, are you aware that the geologist lives..."
"I'm aware," he barked.
"There is no need to be short with me Tom. I am merely trying to help."
"I'm aware she lives nearby."
"And so? Do you intend to call on her?"
"It won't be necessary. I'll just get a lift back to the car and then..."
"Of course. The grave. Your little errand." It snickered. Tom hated the sound; a wheezing noise, like a steel file scraping through bone. "Because you would rather visit the dead than the living. And if you're not careful you may get your wish."
As he hiked over the unpleasant terrain, the shadow hovered around his head and buzzed with taunts. It was a tricky thing to shake once he had started to speak to it and Tom wasn't sure he wanted to anyway. The shadow was right. Any conversation was better than nothing at all, if only because it affirmed his existence a little while longer.
A gust of wind swept the sand off the islands of tarmac and the road reappeared in front of him once again.
"Tom, you know why they call this the Grey Highway?" It wasn't a question.
"It used to be part of the Golden Way. But that was a long time ago and the miners of Kanniedood found more lead than gold. Fools," it jibed. "Fools like your father. And you."
It was late in the day when he found himself in front of the farmhouse. The cladding, worn thin by the sandpaper wind, had been patched in various places over many years from whatever timber could be found nearby. Inevitably, the furniture inside also found its way onto the walls. The structure was a quilt of pine, panels from an antique armoire and the hollow branches of the Quiver Tree. Beside the farmhouse slouched a decaying truck which looked tired and lonely in the sand. The bonnet bared, the bodywork oxidised, a headlight dangling like a lazy eye. Behind the farmhouse a wind pump and water-tower loomed, like obsolete satellites orbiting a dead planet. It was clear the place was deserted. If anything had been farmed here it was a long time ago. Not even base minerals remained.
Tom pulled open a front door which had been harvested from a piano-lid. A hole in the roof let in the sun. The back wall had been blown out and he could see the water-tower through it. A mound of Karoo sand had gathered in the foyer. A glint of red paint caught his eye. He plunged his hand in and exhumed a little pewter toy. It was the kind of wind-up toy which spat out sparks when released, a typical souvenir from the surrounding mining towns. Someone had once held it very dear but it was meaningless to him.
The farmhouse was a farce. The elevation that faced the road was merely a façade, a shell, blessed and persuasive, containing nothing.
He thought to discard the toy, but placed it in his pocket and approached the tower, distraught and dehydrated. With his final fragment of will he climbed the ladder and lifted the iron lid of the tank without hope. His cynicism was rewarded. Inside he saw only his shadow cast against the drained iron interior. "Oh dear," it said, with feigned pity. He imagined the mocking call of the buzzard in the distance and considered, for a moment, clamouring into the tank and closing the lid.
At the base of the tower he collapsed.
"What am I doing here?" he sighed.
"You are here because you don't know who you are and you thought you could find the answer in a box of bones." His shadow looked longer and stronger than before. "You think you can know who you are by gawking at an old thing? Absurd."
Tom could barely speak. His throat was coarse and his tongue swollen. He fought to stay awake, but could not stop his eyelids from drooping. "You wait till I'm dying to tell me this?"
"You are not dying. You are already dead. You died when you left the city, when you fell asleep at the wheel, when you sat down here in the dirt."
He tried to get up. Then cold and darkness assailed him and he thought that the end had come, or that the shadow had swallowed him. He closed his eyes and submitted to it.
The crack of thunder bolted him upright. His head became wet and when he roused himself the landscape was awash with rain. He cupped his hands and collected it and his reflection beamed at him.
"Boom! There you are!"
Tom brought his lips to those of his reflection. He drank until he almost drowned. He filled his hands again. "I was worried. You made me wait too long."
"You were worried!" Tom flustered. "You weren't even ..." he hyperventilated. If it had any idea of how close he came to ... and for it to act hurt ... Tom had had enough of the reflection's needy lapdog routine. It was as if it had licked at the sutured wound of Tom's mind and caused a stitch to come undone. "It's not cute anymore!" he cried and threw his arms apart. The water splattered onto the ground, splitting the reflection into smaller droplets that sank into the sand.
Standing in the drizzle, he pulled his water bottle out from his rucksack and filled it. He felt sober now. His thoughts were crisp and sleek. The wind-up toy, it contained a flint, did it not? The wreck had fuel, yes? And in front of him, did there not stand a pile of willing firewood? He had everything he needed to make a distress signal or a funeral pyre.
When the drizzle turned to dripping, he snapped off a piece of untarnished steel from the ruined truck and dipped his spare shirt into the tank. It soaked with diesel and made a serviceable brush. He painted the farmhouse in a dark, grainy sludge and imagined himself an accidental calligrapher, writing the letters of a language he didn't know.
As night fell he struck flint against steel, and bathed in the rutilant light of the farmhouse set aflame. His shadow convulsed behind him. "Tom, what do you hope to achieve by this?" It tried to suppress the quiver in its voice. "Do you think anyone will see?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. But it's warm, and it will make sure I leave in the morning." He rolled what remained of the pewter toy over a few times in his hands, then hurled it into the fire. "You be quiet now, because you don't exist," said Tom.
The structure groaned as parts of it crapped out and the hot air passing through the hollow branches made them howl. He listened to the sibilance of the wet timber steaming. If trees could indeed talk, these were singing, or wailing, like mourners at a mass. He closed his eyes as if in prayer and swayed back and forth to the song.
Sunday, 09 December 2012 20:44
Grey HighwayBy Rudi Benade
Tuesday, 07 May 2013 17:36
I loved reading this classy, lyrical story; it's underpinned with a subtle melancholy that prods inexpressible emotions.Report
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