The first time you slept with Jak was the day after he came to declare his intentions to your parents. He was eager to get away that morning after the engagement, eager to get away from under your mother’s eyes after the sermon he’d endured from her the night before, and especially eager to get his hands on you.
You knew it, Milla Redelinghuys, you played him.
How did you experience him then? Can you really remember it?
Don’t forget the keys, Ma called. She jingled the great bunch of keys to the Grootmoedersdrift homestead behind you as you walked down the steps of the porch to Jak’s red Spider.
Catch! She called and threw the bunch at him.
You were watching him closely all the time, that much is certain. He snatched the bunch out of the air with a flourish. Ostentatiously, from a height, he dropped it in your lap, showing off to your parents, seeing you off on the steps. Frail they seemed against the house and the sky. But you didn’t want to notice that, you looked down at the keys nestling between your thighs in the dip of your dress. You jingled with your fingers amongst them, you fondled the old worn key-heads. The front door, the kitchen, the loft, the outside rooms. You imagined how you were going to unlock all the doors.
Thanks for everything! Jak called and waved.
Old Sweet ‘n’ Sour, he said under his breath.
Jak, please, she’s my mother, show some respect, you said. But you laughed with him, because she’d been at her worst the night before. It started at dinner when Jak put the expensive engagement ring on your finger. Diamonds are forever, he said. Too expensive, you could see Ma thinking, too showy. It was a burl of a diamond set in gold. You could read her mind. That kind of money would have been better put to some practical use, something for the farm that had now become yours because you were getting married. But she said nothing. Because you who hitherto could never find favor in her eyes, would at last be complete. Somebody’s wife. In the normal course of events, somebody’s mother.
And then, money wasn’t everything, work rather, toil and sweat and grit. There was a great deal to be done on Grootmoedersdrift before it could be called a model farm. That you never hid from Jak. And you didn’t fool yourself either, from the start you expected him to get cold feet. He was no farm boy. His hands were soft, he was the only son of the GP in Caledon, schooled at Bishops to be a gentleman. He would have to learn everything from scratch. From you and your family he would have to get it, because both his parents had died young.
Ma was skeptical when you first told her about him. About how he accompanied you to music concerts and plays in Cape Town. Pure flimflammery, your mother said, show me the man who prefers music and drama to rugby. You wanted to ask, what about Pa, but Pa put his finger to his lips and you bit back your words. And it was true, Jak got bored after the second act. Your mother was adamant. After Jak had got his degree in law at Stellenbosch, she said, you had to see to it that he did a diploma at Elsenburg agricultural college to prepare him for farming. Either that, or he doesn’t set his foot on my land, she said.
You knew you had to maneuver things very carefully between your mother and Jak. And you had to make sure that neither felt they were drawing the short straw.
Did you think then of what you yourself could lose in the process? Can you remember it clearly now, after all that has happened? Then was different. Then you were a winner. Was there love? Enough for a start, you thought. Jak blossomed under your encouragement. You were in love with his pretty mouth, with his boyish way of doing things. And he would grow with you. That was what you believed. You didn’t doubt his desire, from the start of your courtship you’d really had to lock up your rubies.
I want to see your papers, young man, Ma said on the evening of the engagement, and I’ll ask you a few questions myself so I can hear whether they taught you anything at that college. She glared at you both in turn.
I hope you’re as sensible as you’re attractive.
Jak was riled, even though you’d warned him beforehand, only one person had a voice in the house where you grew up, and that was your mother.
Your father got up and went and stared out of the window. You kicked off your shoes and under the table you rubbed your feet against Jak’s ankles. After a while he took your hand under the table. You pressed your leg hard against his during the whole sermon on the correct way of working with sheep and wheat and cattle. You stared in front of you at the table, at the dark grain of the wood. You’d never been able to look her in the eye when she spoke like that. It was as if she was talking about more than just the demands of mixed farming.
You protested, laughingly, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
Ma, you’ll scare Jak off, talking like that.
He’s man enough, she said. I thought you said he was such a good talker himself? But I’m glad to see he can listen as well. The expression on her face said: He’d better, otherwise what do you want him for?
What did I want Jak for? Wasn’t it clear to her? He was rich, he was well educated, he was attractive, witty and well spoken, and well liked by people. He was everything that you felt you were not.
But even though you felt insecure at times, and even though you weren’t exactly the most beautiful of women, you knew you weren’t stupid. You had a BA with languages behind your name, with your extra music and drama subjects completed almost to licentiate level. In addition you had plenty of practical experience of farming. The two of you would be an asset to the Overberg, not only as farmers but also for the cultural life in the region. And you knew that he also thought he was getting a good bargain in you. He said you suited him, short but sharp and could carry a tune on top of it.
Your father observed it all ruefully. The most important thing is for you to be happy and healthy, my child, he said, the rest is incidental, and don’t neglect your music. Once you’ve moved in and settled over the mountain, you must come over every Friday evening, then we can listen to music. Remember, my whole collection will be yours one day.
Jak listened to your father with wary respect, they didn’t really take to each other, you could see that. However fond you were of your father, you were irritated with him that weekend with his sentimentality and his reserve, there was a new kind of energy running now, and new priorities.
You’re not scared of becoming my farmer boy, are you, Jak, I said as you drove away through the main street of Barrydale in the direction of the pass.
You were on your way to show him the farm over the mountain for the first time. You knew you’d have to open on a high bid.
Your “farmer boy”! Jak snorted, but he looked down at the keys between your legs, and you knew he was snared, tail and trotters and all.
My Farmer then, with a big F, you said. You placed your hand high up on his thigh and leaned over and kissed him in his ear.
You’re a sly-puss, he said. Move closer. I have my own schemes for you.
And you intend to tame me if I understand rightly, you teased. You stroked his thigh.
So, Milla Redelinghuys, your story was launched. The situation provided you with an interesting kind of titillation. So here you have two fish hooked, you thought. A farm and a husband. But you didn’t feel entirely at ease. Without the bait, would you have caught the fish?
So tell me again everything we’re going to farm with, you and I? Jak asked.
You counted your words, you fed him a few trivial facts that wouldn’t alarm him. You paddled your hand lightly, to the beat of the information you were feeding him.
Ma kept a couple of hundred Merinos and a few Jersey cows on Grootmoedersdrift. There was a foreman on the farm, OuKarel Okkenel, of the Suurbraak Okkenels, and his half-grown son Dawid, who also lived on the farm. OuKarel was a widower, a respectable man, distant descendant of the Scottish mechanics who came out in 1817 under Benjamin Moodie. OuKarel sowed a few morgen of wheat for Ma every year for a share. She was worried that the farm was being neglected. After Pa inherited his land and they went to farm on Goedbegin, they used to go and check every week that everything was running smoothly on Grootmoedersdrift. Ever since you were small, she and Pa drove over the mountain at shearing time and lambing time and harvest time, and stayed on in the old homestead for weeks on end to keep an eye and to take things in hand. Often it was only you and Pa, those were your best times, he taught you opera arias and took you on expeditions in the veld. Your father with his long stride and his perfect hearing, you couldn’t believe that he had turned into the lopsided old gent with the shuffling gait.
They’re getting old, you said to Jak, they can no longer keep crossing the mountain and manage two farms. We’re getting married at the right time. We have to take over the wheat farming from the Okkenels, the local market is famished for fine white flour now after the war, we have to extend the sheep and cattle herds, there’s excellent grazing next to the river for a dairy herd, we must make of Grootmoedersdrift what it can be, a textbook example of mixed farming, we have to live up to the name.
You moved your hand and massaged the inside of his thigh.
You’re driving me mad, Jak said. He squirmed in his seat and accelerated even more.
Don’t get carried away, Darling, stay on the road, you said.
He tried to keep himself in check. He shook his head, brought up last night’s conversation.
Lynx-hide thongs! What kind of story was that last night, he asked, I hope you don’t take after that mother of yours too much, you’ll finish a man off.
You laughed, you pinched the soft flesh of his inner thigh.
Well, I don’t know who you take after, you teased back. You took a deep breath and said it, you were shy, but you said it.
You’re very close to finished before I’ve even started, was what you said. With your eyes you gestured toward his fly.
You knew what the effect would be. He was the kind who liked off-color comments. At times he said things to you that made you blush, but you never went too far when you were petting. You were a virgin and that was your price.
Good heavens, Milla, Jak exclaimed, tell me more!
There’s a sentinel before my mouth, you teased.
Just you wait, Jak said, you’ll end up with the sentinel in your sweet-talking mouth.
You weren’t altogether sure what he meant but you laughed along with him.
Jak was right about your mother. She hád finished off your father. He’d become ever more silent with the years. Must have been ill already the evening of the engagement. You could tell, from his reticence while your mother took out the maps and spread the papers of Grootmoedersdrift on the dining-room table. It was her ancestral land for generations back in her mother’s line, from the Steyn and the Spies lines. They were the ones, according to her, who planted the wild fig avenue there and traced the foundations of the homestead with lynx-hide ropes.
You don’t throw away your birthright, your mother said to Jak, that which your ancestors built up in the sweat of their brow, that you look after and thát you live up to.
Yes, you said and winked at your father. You knew he knew, like you, what her next sentence would be.
“Those were people who had to hack bushes and stack stones. There was no time for sweet talk and twaddle,” you said, all three of you.
It was your mother’s favorite expression.
You could see Jak glancing around, puzzled, not knowing what was happening.
It’s in Kamilla’s blood, you must realize, Jak, she steamed ahead. Her great-great-great-grandmother farmed there all alone for thirty years after her husband’s death, way before the days of Hendrik Swellengrebel. There was a woman who could get a grip and hit home, blow for blow.
She fixed Jak with a glare like a bayonet. If you can’t do that, young man, then you’d better stand aside because then you won’t do, then you’re just a nuisance to others.
You were ashamed. You twined your fingers through Jak’s and leaned over him, so that your breasts rested on his shoulder while you were pretending to study the map. You knew the map by heart. Ever since you were a little girl your mother had slid it out of its long sheath to show you the farm that would be yours one day.
Jak heard her out meekly, his face expressionless. Now, as you entered the pass, he was openly mocking.
Once upon a time, long ago, when the world was young, in the time of the lord Swellengrebel, he commenced, there was a great-great-great-grandmother Spies, a Boer woman without equal . . .
He changed down to a lower gear on the uphill.
. . . And she called her farm Grootmoedersdrift after herself and laid out its boundaries with, can you guess with what? With lynx-hide thongs!
How does that sound for a beginning? He looked at you.
I particularly liked the bit about the woman who could get a grip and hit home, blow for blow. Tell me more about that.
You started rubbing his groin. The first time you ever did a thing like that. Jak lost his head completely, caught off guard, he took the pass as if were a race track. The car kicked up stones. It was still the old pass, in 1946, with narrow hairpins, nowhere a curb. Every now and again Jak would glance at you and you glanced back. If you had so many things in your head, you wondered to yourself, what must he not make of it all?
Slow down, Jak, you said, it’s a pass.
What will you give me?
Anything you ask.
Don’t you know?
I can guess, you said. You tugged open the buckle of his belt.
He looked at you in surprise, groaned.
So, and what are you going to give me in exchange? You wanted to know.
Anything you ask.
And don’t you know?
I’m not as clever as you.
Well, in the first place you must slow down.
But you’re making me want to get somewhere very fast!
You removed your hand. He took it back and you resisted, but not too much, so that he could put it where he wanted it.
Right, I’ll slow down, he said, and in any case, it looks as if you’ve got a watermelon truck on your side.
Some way ahead on the pass, with a long line of cars following, a truck filled with musk melon and watermelon was trundling along.
No, it’s you who has the watermelon on your side, you said, and pulled open his fly and put your hand inside.
My God, Woman, Jak said, and threw back his head and closed his eyes for a moment.
Keep your eyes on the road, de Wet, you said.
That’s what you said, but you thought: I’m the one who directs everything, the roughly-ranked rock faces, the dark waterway far below, the curves in the road, the clouds far above.
So what problems are these that your mother talks of, there on Grootmoedersdrift? Jak asked with a charged voice, and swallowed.
He shook his head as if he was seeing stars. You had a firm grip on him, long-term promises in your grasp.
Tulips, you said, and sat forward so that you could work your hand in under his testicles. After that you could never get enough of it. The contrast between the silky shifting balls and the immense length of the erect flesh above. You were fascinated by it, surprised that you knew what to do.
There are wild tulips next to the river, and if the cows eat them and they drink water afterwards, then they die as if you’d fed them arsenic. They’re little bulbs. You have to take them out by hand. If you plow them they just multiply.
Well then, said Jak, sounds easy enough. What else?
It’s too wet down there next to the river.
Hmmm, rather wet than dry, he teased.
The cows get sores and fungi and things on their hooves from it. The horses get mud-fever.
Mud-fever? Never heard of it. So what can one do, my handy farm wench?
Drain, drain extensively. In any case, you can’t plant grazing on waterlogged soil.
Still doesn’t sound like a disaster to me.
Well, and then there are the slopes on the dryland. It’s too steep to plow there. It washes away. We need contours there and terraces. And runoffs must be stabilized and grass courses laid on for the drainage.
You turned toward him and fumbled open his clothing and pulled down his underpants and added your other hand and made a quiver with your fingers.
Stabilized, Jak forced out.
It’s a surveyor’s job, you said, and it will take months.
You reckon, Jak said. God, I can’t hold out any longer!
He sat forward and accelerated, and with one hand folded your hands tighter around his penis. Between your legs it felt warm, your head was ringing.
You were only half aware of the road, the few cars ahead of you, the truck.
Hold on, said Jak and started passing.
Jak, careful! You shouted, but you were feeling reckless, floating, a regent of the whole Tradouw, the near side and the far side of the mountain, in the valleys next to the rivers and over the roundbacked hills from the Heidelberg plain as far as Witsand. It swam in front of you eyes. Everything your domain. You felt your mouth, your throat, there was a tang on your tongue as if you’d eaten radishes.
In a shower of stones Jak pulled off the road in a lay-by on the mountain’s side and pressed you to him and kissed you and stroked your breasts. You thought of stopping him, the car’s roof was open and you were visible from the road. But you didn’t really care. You had a fantasy that your mother would see you. See with her own eyes how ownership and history and heritage all were finding their course, as it was predestined, with the brute energy of a good start. That was your movie. As you’d always wanted it, as you thought your mother had wanted it.
What other problems? Jak panted in your ear. He was wild, out of control, he tried to mount you and get inside you but the gear lever was in the way and the space too confined.
Lynxes in the kloofs, you said. You bit him in the neck.
Bearded vultures. They peck out the eyes of the newborn lambs.
You took your breasts out of your bra and pressed his head against them. You immersed him in them. He had to surface for breath. Something about his neck and head seen from above looked like that of a little boy. His mouth, the irresistible mouth of Jak, now desperate and trembling, endeared him to you. His voice was hoarse.
I will do everything, he said. Plow and sow and shear and milk, I promise.
And help me make a garden?
And help you make a garden.
And never leave me?
And never leave you.
You pushed him away gently. You stroked his head to calm him. You wanted to drive and get to the other side. On the other side of the mountain you would lie down for him, on your property, as it had to be in your storybook.
You helped him to arrange his clothing. Breathe deeply, you told him.
I don’t have to tell him everything now, you thought, he’ll get the whole picture in time.
You were the only child and heir of your mother, and your farm was the most difficult one. Your land-hungry cousins would inherit your father’s farms. They claimed they wanted no part in the farm beyond the Tradouw in The Spout as the area was known under the farmers. They were small deciduous-fruit farmers in the Barrydale district. They were intent on helping to put bigger and bigger sections of Pa’s farms under irrigation for peaches and vine.
No thank you, they said when your mother wasn’t around, Grootmoedersdrift is a nightmare. You’ll end up on the bones of your backside there with all the capital outlay you’ll have to make, the money you’ll have to borrow, the time it’ll take you to get the farm arable and all the hay you’ll have to make to pay your debts on top of it all.
You were pleased that your father’s family wasn’t present the evening of the engagement. All three cousins coveted your farm above all else on earth. They could make life difficult for Jak. You’d told him that, too.
Now you want to feed me to me those cousins of yours as well, Jak said, when at last you got up from the table, your mother’s bad enough. The house was quiet. Your mother’s house was always filled with that dense ominous silence. Jak stood in front of the mirror in the guest room and ran his hand over his face as if he wanted to make sure that everything was still in place after his confrontation with his new mother-in-law.
You stood behind him, flung your arms around his shoulders, you were just glad the evening was over.
I know everything about farming, you whispered in his ear, I grew up with it, I’ll help you. I’ll show you everything tomorrow. Now rest, you’re tired.
You nestled up against him, but his body was tense. There was something in his voice, in what he said then, that you didn’t want to hear, you thought you were imagining things.
Yes, he said, you’d better, I can’t wait, tomorrow’s the day, you’d better teach me and you’d better help me so that I can get the taste of it. And you’d better show me everything. I want to see where I’ll be farming. I can’t wait. Seeing that I’ve allowed myself to be set up in a golden frame here.
That was the day that you crossed the Tradouw pass for the first time with Jak de Wet, the great Tradouw, the deep Tradouw, the way of the women in the Hottentot language, as your father had explained to you when you were little.
You were a real woman now, a ring on your finger. Now the two of you just had to get to the other side. You were excited about it. So many times you had fantasized about how it would be to make love to him, to lie with him, to kiss him for endless hours, feel his back under your hands.
Oh lord, no, not again, Jak swore.
You were behind the watermelon truck again.
That’s what you get for canoodling in a lay-by, my dearest Jakobus, you said.
Now the blue fumes of the exhaust were in your face. It was a ramshackle affair, full of dents and scratches, painted over by hand, and patched.
Just signal that you want to pass, you said, then maybe he’ll pull off at the next lay-by.
Jak hooted and gestured and flicked his lights, swore.
It happened very fast. The truck swerved to the left. The load shifted. Watermelons over the railing, bouncing all over the road, red flesh all over the windshield of the Spider.
You were too close. You were too fast. You grabbed the steering wheel.
Don’t brake, don’t brake! you yelled, you’ll skid, keep close to the mountain!
Old lessons from previous experiences, your mother’s words.
The car jerked to a halt, cut out. Jak was stunned. You sat there for a while, watched the truck driver trying to clear the road. Then Jak started the car again and you drove off slowly, stupefied with shock.
Fortunately, you said, you did the right thing.
You did, Jak said. He looked at you quickly and looked away.
Then he started.
I would have stepped on the brake and tried to pass on the right if you hadn’t stopped me.
In his voice was the slightest undertone of a sulk.
You were wonderful, you consoled him, you drive well, I feel safe with you.
You shifted up your dress and took his hand and pressed it between your legs so that he could feel how wet you were. All the way to Grootmoedersdrift he drove with one hand and touched you with the other. In your lap the homestead keys jingled as he moved his hand.
You closed your eyes, but you couldn’t banish the image of the spilling spattering scattering melons from your eyes. The whole car smelt of it.
From Agaat (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007). Copyright 2007. By arrangement with the author and translator. All rights reserved.