Our Hendrina was published in The Chicago Quarterly Review in Fall 2018 and received a special mention in the 2019 Pushcart awards.
We all worked hard, not just Hendrina. So we didn’t love her simply because she drove a wagon across the country at fourteen. If anything, we were embarrassed for our friend. Hendrina was a slight girl and when she gripped the riem, she had to double over to perch on the wagon’s chest. Seated, she believed she possessed an air of competence. So she insisted on this acute and awkward angle between breast and knee as she called to all sixteen of the wide-horned oxen for hours on end: Kleintjie and Swartjie and Grootjie and Erasmus and Mompara and Moses and some others and Lui.
Hendrina was a voorloper for her parents, who did not have servants enough for her to wait in the back on lattice beds like us, stitching the hours into trousers and sheets (mended trousers, mended sheets; nothing was ever new). We envied her poverty. These were the same grass-stuffed mattresses on which we slept and on which we would likely give birth. We saw no evidence that they would not be the same beds on which we’d die. Indeed, Marta bore her first child in her parents’ wagon and perished before they’d had time to wash the bedclothes of blood. Which would have been terribly sad were it not for the spectacular efficiency of such a demise.
Not that steering a wagon was easy; fording the Orange River, Hendrina’s transom snapped. Though the waters were swollen and struck the boulders with great force, she did not scream. The muscles on her arms just hardened to the size of small apricots as she urged the oxen on; our Joshua crossing the Jordan. Hendrina commanded attention, alright. She could not help that her gestures made our own achievements look small. And we were not idle ourselves those two years we walked.
We came from the West. Mostly around Graaff-Reinet, where our fathers were farmers. Our mothers were sewers and menders and butchers and cooks and medics and farmhands and washers and god-fearing women, who went to Church and prayed each night before bed. They were dusty and sweaty, but their fingernails were clean. And so ours were, too, even with the chores. This far from a town, we all played our part. Sheep tails must be melted for candle wax. Cow shit collected to waterproof canvas walls. It’s a blue horse of a different color, our mothers said when there was something they lacked. They also said, the cock is king of his dungheap, so. They had opinions about the trek.
Our party was a hundred wagons large with almost a thousand cattle churning the sweet grass to mud. What a sight we must have been, in-spanning the oxen when the koppies were still shadows against a dull sky. A real horde. If a slow moving one. We only ever eked out a few miles before the heat of the day obliged us to rest. Then we waited for the thunderstorms, which electrified the veld and turned the air to glass. By the time the temperature cooled, we’d add only two or three miles more before dark.
Most often, though, we didn’t go anywhere. Our party stretched out haphazardly, marooned on a never-ending plain that was broken only by the long deserted charred remains of kraals and scattered rock formations that had resisted the erosion of rain. After all, there were wagons to mend, oxen to rest, cattle to fatten and tend with a mix of grease and tar, which fixed broken bones and cuts and sprains equally. And these were the times Hendrina was beaten by her pa.
We were all beaten regularly and could guess the weapon and length of a flogging by the shape of the welts: thin strips for whips, stubby straps for canes, the compact geometry of a buckle repeated over again. Drinking mampoer, our fathers shook their heads at the discipline they’d been forced to instill. It was not easy beating goodness into a body the way you would hone your favorite knife. But they were fine Christian men and would not be faulted for lack of effort. Still, Hendrina’s hidings were legendary.
We must add that Oom Bezuidenhout did not only beat Hendrina. He was generous with his punishment. His son Hendrik deserved a good thrashing, though. Hendrik had a unique talent for finishing his errands only when the last cattle had been corralled, but finding himself free when a bag of beskuit appeared. The boy was greedy, which we understood. We all wanted. But he was lazy, too, and that we could not abide.
Now when Hendrik was beat, the whole camp knew of it. His screams could be heard a laager away. Pleas to Jesus Almighty, apologies, promises; Hendrik was a model of Christian repentance while his ass was being flayed. Thank heavens for Nella, our parents said. Petronella had golden ringlets and a pudding face and had memorized the entire book of Psalms at five. We hated her.
The marvel of Hendrina’s beatings was not the noise then, which mostly consisted of her father’s grunts, but the length. They did not end. While we quickly surrendered all scorn and dignity in snot-nosed groveling, Hendrina locked herself in a battle of wills. She should have wept. She should have screamed. She should have apologized for all the sins she’d yet to commit, like the rest of us. But she would not admit that her father was right and so he whipped her for insolence, harder and faster until he ran out of breath and the muscles in his arm turned to porridge fat.
The beatings were awful. By which we mean, filled with awe. Wagons away, we strained to hear the thwack of leather on skin, and conjured chains and marble amphitheaters and jeering crowds; an Old Testament spectacle demonstrating mankind’s great capacity for suffering and the cruelty of Gods. We were at once sickened and excited by her nerve. How could you not love a girl like that, who did not know when to give up?
We traded biltong and rusks to see her scars. Sometimes stolen strings of tobacco, too; she charged extra to trace the mealie-silk lines down her spine. Or the swell of her cheek or the ruffle of melted skin. Hendrina was practical like that. We were never rich enough to touch the wounds themselves, weeping and raw, so we made do with endless dissections of her arguments.
Was Oom Bezuidenhout really so mad that Hendrina had asked him to fix the iron tire of the wagon? Perhaps he’d snapped, hearing her go on about mutton for dinner again when everyone else was eating antelope and bontebok and springbok and gnus. Hadn’t Oom Lourens dragged a fat quagga through camp while her father nursed his head from the mampoer of the night before? You couldn’t expect a man to give up his brandy. Not when he’d dragged his family to a strange and violent land that he did not understand.
And he’d warned her, right? Asking whether he’d requested her opinion. Hendrina must have known what awaited her when she said it was a good thing she’d offered her mind anyway. She must have considered lying, if just for a moment as her father reached for the sjambok, which he kept by his bedside because he was a man who dreamed, and his dreams bore a striking resemblance to this disordered earth. Just once, she must have imagined shutting up. But she wasn’t sorry and she wouldn’t let her father win.
Hendrina could hear the tokoloshe rooting around the beds at night, hyenas screaming and Zulu assegais scraping over shields. She heard the crack of flame when two years earlier our homes burned beneath a Xhosa raid, and she dared us to be afraid.
It was this we loved about our Hendrina. In the same way we loved kneeling beneath the lip of canvas in our wagons, watching those terrible summer storms. The sky full of wonder, but nothing good to come of it.
According to Hendrina, hunting and keeping the wagons in good repair was the least our fathers could do after they’d convinced our mothers to pack their Sunday best into chests they would not open for years. It was true our mothers were not fond of cramming knives and soap and bars of lead beneath their beds and that before we’d left there’d been a lot of arguing over taxes and slaves. But why they’d finally agreed to the whole endeavor remained for us one of life’s great mysteries, like sunshowers and nightclothes.
“To have their say,” Hendrina claimed. She’d heard that in the new country women would speak at the volksraad. We’d heard nothing of the sort, though we slept beside the bed on which our brothers and sisters were made. Which just showed how remarkably good we all were at keeping secrets.
“We’re better off here, anyway,” Hendrina said. And she was right. We were forgotten on the trek and could slip away. We had the whole country beneath the white sky in which to play. Not that we noticed this freedom. We were concerned with boys.
Our mothers were already starting to talk of marriage, and we eyed the men with suspicion. Eyed each other, too, bickering over the handsome ones, the rich ones, the ones who rode a horse with that slack-backed sway, as though with a shift of his hips the whole universe would be his to command. “Why else do men have families?” Hendrina said.
It was true that no wife seemed pleased with her lot. Airing the bedding, our mothers did not need to strike the mattresses so keenly, as though each night the very linens collected the residue of regret. And while their gossip over suitors contained an uncharacteristic sympathy, this alternated with delight. “You’ll see,” they crowed. The mothers of toddlers said, “You, too, will grow old.”
Hendrina swore that she’d not marry anyone. Though she spent a lot of time with Karel, we were quick to point out. Karel, who chewed tobacco like his spit was gold.
Karel had joined the party alone, having ridden hard across the Eastern Provinces with just a tent, a horse, and a few head of cattle that he’d stolen from his parents who had refused to trek. We appreciated the patriotism of such a theft. What courage! What style! Our fathers cajoled him into eating the food their wives had made. Oom Bezuidenhout especially took a shine to the boy and Karel could be found at their wagon, smoking and reviewing the family disputes. They told each other tales, Karel’s dark curls shaking beneath his hat as lions thickened and mountains grew and gold multiplied.
So Karel must have felt some kinship to the family and it was not surprising that when Hendrina’s spokes broke he lent a hand, galloping across on his shaggy horse, a mix of Basuto and Arab stock, unbridled and unshod, like all the rest.
“It’s more effective to travel with four wheels,” he said over the squawking of the hens in their baskets, and Hendrina could have murdered him. But before she could contemplate the details of revenge, he winked and added, “We’ll fix it before your pa finds out.” Then he set to work chopping fresh wood from the assegai and carving a perfect replica of the broken spoke. Hendrina was proud but sensible and tightened her kappie and knelt at his side to help.
When they rode into camp later, Karel said he’d been ill. None of us believed him, of course, with Hendrina scowling at his side. Especially when he lingered by her wagon the next day to offer advice she’d rather he kept to himself.
“Don’t try to wrestle the bastards,” he informed her of her oxen. “You think you’ll win against a thousand pounds of meat?”
“You’ve never seen me wrestle,” Hendrina said through her teeth.
Karel said, “Wrestling only gets you so far. You’ve got to treat them as though you were in love…”
Precisely what that looked like, who can say? She did not abandon the soap she was making with fat and soda and wood ash when word spread through camp that the men who’d gone to hunt lions had been hurt. The lions had been devouring our cattle at night and Karel had joined a troupe of young warriors who fancied themselves David in the den — except they sought to slay the beasts with flintlocks instead of prayer.
Later, after the crowd receded, she visited the tent where the injured men lay. One boy was dead. The left side of his body had been shredded by claws and his innards stuffed back beneath the skin with just a dirty shirt to hold them in. Another lay moaning on the bed between a roughshod table and a grand stinkwood chair. From the pallor of his skin we knew he was not inheriting the chair. Downstream, the men dug two graves.
While our brothers sang psalms slow and serious, it was evident from their hurried efforts and the empty brandy bottles strewn by their bare feet that they all agreed Cornel had been a show-off, and his death only surprising in that it had arrived so late. Gerhardus’ eye even wandered to the Prinsloo’s tent, where pretty Sarah sat. There were plenty of girls who pretended they had to be held when a body was readied for the grave. So who could blame these boys for enjoying a good death?
At least we didn’t have to worry that Hendrina’s heart would break over Karel. For Karel was a helpful fellow, forever fetching pails of water for pretty girls. Our mothers didn’t complain. An extra pair of hands never hurt, and what was so terrible about a bit of excitement anyway? They’d been such obedient daughters and look out over this great sea of green grass for what good that had done.
Karel seemed particularly fond of Magrietha, who, on behalf of Hendrina, we didn’t like. She had neither the intelligence nor the personality to fill her too tall frame, so that whole parts of her body appeared drained. She also had the face of a horse and an ugly laugh you could hear whenever Karel was near. She mended his linen jacket and his trousers, too, and we imagined her kissing the filthy fabric so often we knew it was true.
When we mentioned this to Hendrina — not to be mean, but because she’d find out eventually — she shrugged. Even scowled a little less, which made us think she was relieved. “They look well together,” she said. And after a pause, “But she should fix her own clothes first, which are too tight.” Then Hendrina turned back to the fire over which she melted lead. The territory beyond the Drakensberg was still in dispute, she reminded us. We’d need bullet soon. She could be condescending, our Hendrina. But only because we disappointed all her expectations.
Still, we copied our friend and leapt into preparations, mixing tins of gunpowder and salting meat and ignoring the boys entirely. When this only made them more interested in us, we suspected Hendrina of teaching us how to lure a man. We ascribed to her all sorts of knowledge she had no reason to possess as she strode earnestly across the veld, trampling the bitter flowers with some new purpose in mind. Hendrina spoke only of the logistics of the crossing, which were complex. As if any of us cared.
The worst part about our friend was how often she was right. When we emptied all our belongings from the wagons on the steepest sections of the cliff to walk the items over the sharp precipices ourselves, we could not help hating Hendrina. We suspected that if she had not gone on so, the wagons would have fit through the narrow paths that had been chosen and not needed dismantling. Instead, we lugged chests and churns and stoves and mattresses, though it was summer and our lightest linen clothes scratched our skin raw.
We blinked then when we finally saw Natal, convinced exhaustion had summoned a mirage. Blue rivers stitched green meadows to shaded valleys that stretched out all the way to the ocean that led to India. Somehow we fancied that Hendrina was responsible for the perfection of Natal as well, and as always we forgave her everything.
All that remained was to find a way down. We could not just hook the wagons back onto the oxen since they would careen over the steep slopes and crush the beasts. So we transferred the back wheels, which stood almost as tall as a man, to the front, and tied great logs from the beech trees our menfolk chopped in their place for brakes. The oxen still struggled, notwithstanding our improvements. They fell to their knees. One broke a leg. But on the first day, only a single wagon shattered its disselboom, and most of us called the expedition a success.
For weeks, we camped beneath the Drakensberg. Our cattle extended five miles along the Tugela River, our tents spread so that for once we did not hear our neighbors fart. The ploughs and spades and picks we’d lashed to the sides of our wagons seemed almost sensible in this landscape of wild syringa and feather tipped cotton trees. When they thought we were not watching, our mothers even fingered the seeds they’d brought for mealies and sorghum and wheat. It was hard not to believe that this was our Promised Land. Although many of the men still thought we had miles to travel before we’d harvest again. They wanted to head North, fearing another war. Others trusted the governor enough to stake out the choicest territories to farm. Not that the Northerners in Potgieter’s camp ever left. Not that Maritz’s men watered a single seed. Each circled his future cautiously.
Then one night as we slept, a man from another camp cantered into our midst, screaming, “They’re here! The Zulus are here! They’ve killed everyone!” Recognizing that now was not the moment to demand details, we leapt from our beds, pulling on kappies and shawls with one hand while the other reached for the gunpowder and bullets and muzzles of our father’s flintlocks, hanging over our beds. We gathered branches from the thorn trees to cover the spaces between the wagons, which our fathers swung slowly and with much cursing into a laager, ready to fight. Our mothers poured the gunpowder into the barrel of the snaphaan, followed by a plug of wadding, then a slug and a second plug, with the same fingers that would have pressed the apricot pip into the earth.
A roar of thunder shook the earth beneath our wagons, but there was no rain. This, one of the details that stuck in our memories years afterwards. The rest of the night unraveled so that it was only together that we could reconstruct the battle we’d all fought.
The menfolk primed their barrels and shot and shoved their guns back into our hands and we joined our mothers in reloading the chamber while they fired again with the second rifle that lay at their feet. In the sparks from their shots, we glimpsed the conditions in which we fought, which were somewhat less than encouraging. Dingane had an army of 50,000 men and it seemed that every one of them was sprinting towards us, assegais in hand. So we thrust the guns back and forth, until the barrels were so hot our fingers burned and we feared the gunpowder would explode in our hands. But the Zulu warriors fell. Their brothers climbed over the mess of intestine and bone and continued to hurl their assegais, but they sunk to the ground as well. With our knives, we slashed at the hands and the legs and the heads that reached through the tears in the hides protecting our wagons from flame, and limbs tangled and piled high. Tannie Oosthuisen snatched at her trailing shawl, and we laughed at such care in the face of filth. Our skirts had soaked up all the blood.
We were not without our own losses. An assegai ripped through Oom Bezuidenhout’s gut and he slumped over, holding the shaft quite tenderly, as if confused as to why it poked from his spleen. When Hendrina’s mother stepped forward with her knife, a Kaffir rammed her through with a spear, too. But the grim look on his face froze when he dropped to his knees with an axe lodged in his skull. Small bits of brain matter splattered on the grass. Behind him, Hendrina breathed deeply in and out. Then she reached for her father’s gun with both her hands and when it would not move beneath his weight, she pushed at him with her foot and yanked.
The rifle was too long for Hendrina, but she held it steady even as she yelled to Nella to get the gunpowder or they’d all die. Nella screamed. A gaping hole of teeth and tonsil had devoured her pretty, fat face. When Hendrina fired, the gun slammed her shoulder so hard she fell onto her ass. Hendrina rolled to her knees and ripped the gunpowder bag from her sister’s hands and filled the rifle and fired again. This time she swayed back to steady herself but stood upright. She passed the flintlock to her sister, who, still sniffling, reloaded just the way she’d been taught.
Eventually, Nella quit hiccuping and Hendrina lost all feeling from her shoulder to her elbow as she fired again and again through the waves of men breaking over them, each weaker than the last. Then the sun burned through the morning mist and baked the mud and shit and lifeless flesh before us so that the whole valley reeked. We were exhausted and sore and starving and our dresses had dried stiff, and that was how we knew the battle had been won. The women gathered their supplies and joked about who’d reloaded fastest, who’d sliced off the most hands.
Later that day, we discovered that the first trekker camp had been massacred after Dingane murdered Retief and his company. Our mothers and fathers were shocked. But nothing was so amazing to us as how Hendrina had fought.
While we pulled the Zulu dead away from our camp, fearing disease and a cover for future attacks, we filled in the details: the arc of her axe, the smoke stinging her eyes, the blisters that burned her forefinger and palm. With each telling we knew more until every one of us could have corrected Hendrina herself on the particulars of her bravery.
Not that we had the chance. Hendrina was burying her parents. Karel dug a grave beneath a nearby mimosa and the predikant Smit said a prayer for their souls. Hendrina tried to shovel dirt over their bodies, too, but her right shoulder was blackened and stiff from the bruise of the rifle’s butt. So instead she sat on the mound, as if, for once, there was no work to do. Although now more than ever there were slugs to cast and bodies to burn, wagons to tar and prayers to be said.
All morning and all afternoon Hendrina lay there. She only stirred in the evening when her sister appeared with the ox jawbone and knuckles that served to represent the family’s wagon and livestock in her games, and then to argue over the route these pieces should take over the strange earth. The sun cracked on the tips of the mountaintops. Our friend was a voortrekker; she believed in setting a course.
No one thought much of Hendrina afterwards. We were busy preparing for war, which mostly consisted of arguing over tactics and praying to the Lord. We were growing sick of the voice of God, which in our minds sounded like the red-nosed Erasmus Smit, who was not even a proper predikant. In fairness, Hendrina mimicked the motions of her parents — beating her brother long enough that he would scream, plaiting her sister’s hair — so it was easy to forget that the Bezuidenhouts were dead.
But eventually our parents bored of wrangling over which dongas to avoid and which streams the Zulus could ford and turned to the question of our friend. Many words were spoken over a pipe late at night. The men mostly agreed that the children should be taken in by a wealthy family — the Martiz’s for example — who would be repaid with whatever the Bezuidenhout livestock produced. Certain men said she should marry, on account of it not being decent to live single like that. Certain men, it was noted, were all single themselves.
When Karel made the mistake of relaying the council’s intentions to Hendrina, the whole camp heard words young women weren’t supposed to know. We also heard Karel yelling: what would she do if Dingane attacked? How could she handle her Kaffirs alone? She was only a girl. We were relieved when Hendrina held a knife to his throat and he shut up — although she should have thanked him for the warning. In Hendrina’s defense, while our mothers tried to teach us manners, what we learned between the wars and the walking into foreign territory, was how to survive.
We expected a show then from Hendrina. Our Boudicea, charging the front lines, shawl tied tight! So we were disappointed when we learned that she had not cornered Vrou Maritz with a glint of moonlight on the cleaver in her hand, but had bathed with the woman. She’d soaped her body in the Bushman’s river and chattered on about how hard it was feeding three extra mouths with so many cattle gone. How remarkable it was that the Italian widow fared so well, she who’d led her family’s wagons on the trek. And Hendrina had asked Tannie Maritz whether this wasn’t what she planned to do, if — God forbid — her husband died? Surely, she wouldn’t pass on everything to her sons and live on their forbearance, like a beggar in her own clothes?
“If you don’t mind,” Vrou Martiz said when she was through. “I prefer to bathe alone.”
But then Vrou Martiz talked to our mothers and our mothers talked to our fathers, and soon everyone agreed that Hendrina would be just fine. They’d been younger than our friend when they’d started running a house, our mothers said. She would figure it out, as they had done. It was an ominous surrender to Hendrina’s great will. We should have been pleased for her.
What envy we carried for her freedom vanished as Hendrina battled to survive on her own. Hendrik was missing, so Hendrina had to pen the beasts herself and then make food. Dinner was so late that when she called the servants to the campfire to hear her read from the family Bible, the way her pa had done, they’d long since gone to bed. One of many small mutinies. They were slow to respond and quick to forget what she’d asked. And Nella could not help pointing out everything else their parents would have done. “I’m not ma!” Hendrina cried once, grabbing her sister’s shoulders and shaking so that Nella’s head jiggled back and forth. “She’s dead!” Nella nodded at Hendrina as though she were a fool.
Hendrina rose an hour earlier, then an hour earlier again. She quit worshipping at the predikant’s sermons and reading from the bible before bed. Nella glared at her all night.
So we thought Karel just dashing to march into camp and offer his hand in marriage. He’d sought Meneer Maritz’s approval, which, we agreed, exhibited great sincerity. Perhaps even love. And while we noted Magrietha’s red eyes and how the puffiness to her face made her look fat, we did not gloat at her misfortune. Instead, we eyed Karel and Hendrina sidelong as they walked alone together — and then as Karel stamped off the way he’d come. Magrietha, the slut, wiped the snot from her face.
We were horrified. Had Hendrina mentioned the gossip about Karel’s refusal to go on commando? Maybe she’d mocked his new nekdoek, which had a dandy gingham pattern we suspected Magrietha had selected. One by one, we whispered that our friend had too much pride. She’d fought. She’d won. Her insistence on living alone was showing off.
But this final sloughing of safety seemed to have sparked some peace in her soul. She reached an agreement with her brother, who was granted his freedom so long as the cattle survived. The servant Emmelina cooked and sewed and cleaned as though nothing had changed. Nella didn’t quit acting holy, but she did compliment her sister occasionally on the tidiness of their affairs. And our mothers, too, began helping our friend. We suspected they were grateful she’d not snapped up one of the few unmarried men.
But the story of Karel and Hendrina’s love was not so easily brought to an end. One Autumn morning, as the first spokes of frost laced the grass, Karel appeared at Hendrina’s wagon. She needed to learn to shoot, he said. “Good.”
“I shot good enough at Blaukraans,” Hendrina pointed out.
Karel said, “You couldn’t miss.”
That Karel could not only forgive Hendrina for spurning him but love her still seemed to us terribly romantic. For the rest of our lives the sound of bullets ricocheting off rocks in the smoky half-light would seem the height of seduction, our own courtships disappointing for not being tinged with the smell of sulfur. Though Hendrina pretended she did not care for the attention, she flaunted her prizes of dussie and bok. She could not piss without her father’s gun slung across her back. It was a strange way to woo a woman, alright, but Hendrina was insistent that she was no ordinary girl.
We didn’t want to believe then that Karel, who had risen so high in our estimation, was following the cowardly Potgieter back over the Drakensberg into the veld. How, we asked Hendrina, could the man who’d stolen his own family’s cattle to join a new nation abandon it at the first sign of distress? What we meant was: how could he leave her?
Karel’s love for Hendrina lent our lives mystery. Our own romances were garden variety. Ordinary boys visited our fathers to talk hunting and cattle and war. We took unremarkable walks along the Tugela so they could recount everything they’d killed. Occasionally, we kissed. Sometimes, more. We could agonize about these suitors for hours, sure. We tested out the sound of our new names and argued about our adopted families. But one love affair was the same as the last. We’d never seen anything like Karel and Hendrina before. “He’ll regret it,” we announced.
“Maybe I will, too.” Hendrina had decided to join him on the trek. She did not want to stay in this valley where her parents lay dead in the ground. She could smell the bodies in the burnt air.
They left as the weather warmed and the snow on the peaks of the Drakensberg melted, feeding the rivers so that the currents ran cold and fast. From the peddlers who traded ivory in the Bay of Delgoa, we heard that the journey was hard. Mud swallowed wagon wheels whole. The beech forests of Natal petered out into silver thorn bushes and grass and the occasional squat baobab. They burned cow shit in their fires at night. “Like Jews wandering in the wilderness,” the peddlers said. But they found land, finally; fig trees gesturing against a wide blue sky. They set out farms and forded dams and carefully unpacked their seeds and pits to nurse orchards on the sour grass. “It’s hard there. They won’t survive long.” The peddlers scratched at red wounds left by Tsetse flies. They did not know our Hendrina.
Karel built a house of mud and reeds, the walls covered in mist, the floors tamped down first with clay and cattle dung, then later peach stones that he’d crushed. Hendrina slept in her wagon until Karel built her a hut for her neighboring plot of land as well. Nothing so grand as his dwelling, which had separate rooms and an overhang for the kitchen fire when it rained. But neat, with its own wood door carved from the iron-stemmed mopani tree. An ox skull served as a stool on her stoop.
And that’s all travelers would say of our friend. “She threatens to shoot everyone!” They shook their heads when we laughed. “Not even a cup of coffee, hey!” That was Hendrina, we claimed. Unkindly, but not without a measure of pride.
For years we imagined the life she and Karel led, settling on the details until we no longer needed to speak of her; we could feel our Hendrina elbowing around in our chests. By then we’d gotten older as well, and we had our own lives in Natal to talk about. We’d married, born children, raised farms that were being threatened by the British again. We argued over whether we’d have to hoist our belongings into wagons once more to cross the shadow of the Drakensberg.
Then the British raised their flags in Durban and our commandos slunk home on horseback. We lashed out at our husbands, yelling about God and honor and courage and right, because we’d planted such pretty gardens, built such tidy lives. If Hendrina were here, we said. Which was a shock. We’d gotten used to her silence, nestled beside our hearts.
Now, ten years later, hauling furniture over a mountain pass that had not changed, we washed behind our children’s ears, anxious to present these creatures we’d made to our friend. We wanted her to praise them. We feared they would not compare with her and Karel’s kids.
But Hendrina barely noticed their scrubbed faces and well-sewn clothes, which we’d had to root out of the chests we’d carried so far. The children beside us on the stoop itched to be acknowledged so they could run off and play. We craved a mug of coffee, a seat, some sign we hadn’t intruded on her life. “I’ll start a fire,” she finally said, spitting out her tobacco chew.
Twenty-four and Hendrina lived alone in the same hut Karel had built her years earlier. Her sister had married a prominent burgher with a farm fifty miles south. Her brother had also wed but was on commando against Mzilikazi in the north. Hendrina’s beskuit were chalky for want of butter. And Karel? He’d married too, she explained. Just one week earlier.
Nine years he’d lived beside her and now that she was alone he married! The bastard! We said. Son of a whore! “Oh, Karel was born of an elephant’s shit. But I don’t begrudge him his wife. She’s a pretty thing,” Hendrina said of Aletta van der Merwe. “As fifteen year olds are.”
We were outraged. Less for her sake than our own. Their romance had for years sustained our own regrets about the men we’d married, and nourished our fantasies. That Karel had wed another woman laid waste to the possibility that our lives could be extraordinary.
But Aletta was more than pretty. She was quick to lend a hand and laugh and devised all sorts of tortures to remind Karel of herself. “I bang the pots in the morning after my husband’s drunk too much,” she confessed, doling out another slice of pie. “Sometimes I salt his coffee, too, if I’ve seen he’s a lingering eye.” We visited her often, never once stopping to speak to the friend of our youth, who we hardly recognized anymore. Hendrina did not drive her wagon to parties or church and avoided every nagmaal. The hair thickened on her upper lip.
Occasionally, we heard about Hendrina from Nella, who’d grown into a sturdy woman with two fine chins. Nella said Hendrina liked to pretend she lived in poverty. Obtaining a portion of their parents’ property for a dowry had been a battle hard fought. And Hendrik should have had a farm to offer his wife, not needed his rich in-laws to grant him a plot of land. Nella herself did not pay social calls. “What can you do with a woman who refuses to go to church? I have young kids to think about,” she said as if religious apathy were catching.
We nodded, knowingly. But there were days our minds wandered from the catechism. Hendrina seemed happy.
There were times we found ourselves in her hut, waiting for her to find her rusks in the dark. She refused to light candles, which took too much time to make. When she gave up on beskuit, inevitably because she had not baked any, we passed around a bottle of mampoer instead — and sometimes a pipe of the Kaffirs’ dagga — and talked. Not about our children, but the British and crops and soil, the conversations folding into one long thread we could not unravel even later in bed. “Disgraceful,” our husbands said, pinching their noses at the skunk of our breath. “If the children should see you like this!” But they wouldn’t. We couldn’t remember the last time we’d seen our own mothers. They lived so quietly in our houses, they’d disappeared.
Our husbands forbade us visiting Hendrina, which made us want to see her more. She was smart, after all. She’d managed to keep her cows free from river fever and had not had to sell during the worst of droughts. The servants gossiped that it was her ramshackle farm that had kept Karel’s estate afloat those years. We tried to tell each other that this care for Karel even after she’d been cast off was proof of a tragic love. But we suspected that Hendrina, who understood something we would never grasp, was making a point.
The years collapsed, one into the next, and our own children soon talked of marriage and we hunted for suitors who would not beat our daughters much or who would make them rich. We hugged these almost-women to our breast and hated ourselves for being pleased that soon they’d understand what life was like. But they did not notice our attentions. Our touches barely grazed their skin. If we left the pins in our daughters’ wedding dresses, if we curdled the milk in their cake, we could not be blamed. We refused to be erased.
And Hendrina farmed on.
Only once in all those years did Hendrina’s routine change and that was when Aletta caught malaria. Hendrina rode into the neighboring farm for the first time in years, armed with Emmelina’s poultices and herbs and did not leave for two weeks. She and Karel took turns changing cold compresses and watching Aletta die. “Abominable,” Nella said, not pleased by the gossip that spread, suggesting Hendrina may have helped the girl on her way. And maybe she did. We would not put murder past our friend. But if she had, it was not for want of a man.
Hendrina did not move into Karel’s bed as they all expected. And why should she, we wanted to know. Why saddle Hendrina with another woman’s children? Why condemn her to be a mother, a wife, to care for more than she pleased? Hendrina had chosen her path. And who were we, we thought, tired and sore and forever falling in love with the men to whom we were not married, to disagree? Let her be. Let her be nothing to anyone. Let her stand all alone.
Only Hendrina had learned over the years how to disappoint our expectations a thousand and one ways as well. Though she was thirty-four and too old for foolish mistakes, she began to show. “I could have forgiven her,” Nella said, “If she intended to marry.”
No one knew who the father was, of course. Hendrina would not let even traveling salesman step on her property. Some said it had to be the help then. Stuck alone on a farm with a bunch of Kaffirs, no wonder she was not admitting her sin. Others of us glanced at our husbands a moment too long, curious if they remembered Hendrina the way she’d been as a girl. If they thought of her still.
At the nagmaal, which as always Hendrina did not attend, Karel slurred his words. He wanted to know if we’d heard anything, anything at all. “I’ve looked after her these years, you see. I want to know what I did wrong.” We patted his hand as though we pitied him. But really we thought he ought to be ashamed; he’d failed. How pathetic it was that in the end he was not to blame.
That’s how we thought of the father of Hendrina’s child: a man to blame. Whoever had conceived with her had committed a crime we could never forgive. Hendrina was not meant to waddle like us, you see. She was not meant to fatten in the face and knit the most delicate blankets and complain about the pain in her knees. Here was the girl who’d held her father’s gun and shot against an impi of ten thousand men! Here was the girl who’d trekked across the very teeth of the Drakensberg alone! She was meant for more than shit stained rags and leaking breasts and ordinary joy.
But who else could see that apart from us in her small house? She was fading already. Her edges blurred as she searched for that lost tin of rusks with one hand, the other resting across the roundness of her belly. Like all of us, not realizing how empty it already was.