Author’s Note: Poison Karoo is a work of fiction, written out of concern and dismay at the proposals for hydraulic fracking in the Karoo.
Ludo is an old man, gray now and with eyes that grow bluer the longer he stares at the sea, longing for the woman he has never seen again, not since those years long ago. He lives alone, and sits on his stoep gazing out over the bay. His house is small and square, turned to face northeast, with its back to Paternoster’s harshest winds. In front of the stoep the ground slopes away, and a path leads down through low bietoubos and loose pebbles to the big, rounded rocks strewn over the beach, and further to the fish market where they gut the snoek so that even from where he sits he can see the red and white flesh, and further still, to the wide stretch of the sand the locals call Voorstrand.
When he stands in front of the mirror he sees the gray hair and the startling blue eyes and it is as if that youth with the smooth thatch and the supple grace of a ballet dancer never even existed. As if he has lost everything, as if his story no longer has its thread—until he reads of the oil company’s plans to mine shale gas in the Karoo.
He reads of hydrofracking and how poison water is pumped deep into the layers of rock and how it breaks and fractures and drives gas upward to the surface, to industry, to the people.
And he thinks: I must do something about this, with my last ounce of strength.
So he is going back to the farm in the Karoo, the farm with the spring, a place he knows like the back of his own hand.
Every stony ridge, every bulge of magma where the earth once clotted and swelled eons ago, every undulation in the landscape.
He knows every slant of light, and all the seasons which come sweeping over the dams and tilled lands, the open veld and mountains of the Karoo. He knows these like the lifelines on his palms and it gives him what little foothold he has in this life.
Often in the city where he had once made his living as a factory owner he’d looked down into his open palm, and here still in Paternoster his eyes keenly scan the map of lines etched into his hand. He knows the world those lines represent and it comforts him, gives him a sense of belonging.
He knows how things can drill deep down, how they can branch and crack and spread and fill with poison, the pressure building up so that small tremors deep in one’s spirit can destroy you without your even knowing, on the surface.
You only realize later—too late—when what issues from you begins to taste bitter to you and others around you, and you know there is nothing left inside you that is pure and clear.
Now he has to return to that farm with its spring, he must make this journey full of risks, and he must go now, because just like with the fish quotas here on the West Coast the government has also turned its back on the dry Karoo. He wants to give himself at least one chance to see if he can do something which might help carry him further, help him land the big fish, bring it home to harbor.
But there is something else as well. The memory of her body in his arms. When he went to her in the veld so many decades ago, her body had quivered, rippled. She was greedy, overwhelming, too quick for him, her arms unexpectedly strong and her stomach muscles hard and when he stood up from her he was in a state of vertigo: he felt the world turning about him, and he flew.
That’s how it was back then—she’d dance naked on a slab of black dolerite with the arid Karoo stretching gray and shimmering behind her and in the distance he could see the springboks leaping and pronking and he could see them drinking the wind, and he knew that play like this was a celebration and a joy, and he had already forgotten how.
It is this memory, too, which drives him now, away from his stoep and out of Paternoster, away, much further away.
It is difficult to act, to leave. He hadn’t realized how much he’d taken root there alongside the ocean. He was grafted to that veranda, it was his emotional center of gravity, his anchor, he could barely stir from it.
Yes, that was what drove him: The moments with her and the realization, suddenly, again, that a completely different life was possible, that in a split second you could grasp things afresh, that the old adventure wasn’t gone forever, but lying in wait for you, and that any moment you could chance upon it, like a lynx seething in the corner of a camp where two fences meet. Or a swath of Namaqualand daisies when you crest a rise and are struck by their sudden glorious abundance. Or two snakes mating, shining and intertwined and creepily beautiful in their cold skins, so focused on their task that you could step over them, and they wouldn’t even sense your presence.
These are the images that rise in his mind as he drives out, putting his foot down as he hits the open stretch of road, the old jeep stuttering at first, but the engine gradually warming up and easing into what he asks of it. Ludo rolls down his window, and feels the wind pluck at his cheeks.
Ludo is the son of a water bailiff, the local waterfiskaal. His father was a kind of priest and magistrate in that Karoo world—a man in khaki shorts with a small farm of his own, but without the hardscrabble struggle of the smallholders farming on the river banks close to town and without the self-importance of the big farming clans settled on acres of land that stretched as far as the eye could see.
His father was a man with an eye on what their family called “the deep water,” a man with a feel for sluices and a conviction that everyone deserved their share. His father sometimes ended up in fistfights with the farmers, but the water that surged from the Commando Drift Dam and Lake Arthur, pressing through underground till it bubbled up at the weir at Rooidraai as if from nowhere, all this water his father managed like the pope managed the church, so they said back then.
“The politics of water,” his father often sighed, and nothing more needed to be said. The whole family understood.
His father was a man too intelligent for his work, but perhaps that was his good fortune, because he could attend to his duties with a deep, almost priestly seriousness. When the call came from Commando Drift to say the water was on its way, he picked up his quota register, called every farmer along the canal, explaining everything slowly and deliberately—almost ritually, religiously—then took out his stopwatch and wound it up, whistled for his fox terrier, and walked out to the bailiff’s pickup.
When you stood there next to the big weir at Rooidraai, the cement trench still empty, baked dry by the sun, you could feel the earth tremble under your feet long before the first spray of the torrent reached you.
You could smell it, it was on the march, in its advance it carried the memory of little rivulets and deep dongas, the Bergkaroo and great rivers and flash floods. There were relics in that water, the scent of plants and soil and pebbles and drowned creatures from far afield, a sense of richness foreign to Rooidraai and you waited for the water with an thrill you could feel quivering in the soles of your feet.
The shuddering traveled up, first through the calves and then the thighs and his father said: “Can you also feel it in your hips, son, feel it pressing up in your belly and now it’s in your chest, here it comes, the big water.”
Then the shaking was so powerful that a go-away bird flew up—he hadn’t even noticed it sitting there behind a thorn tree—and Druppel the fox terrier, who had been whining and leaping up on the pickup and off again, and running round in circles and sniffing the ground, now came to seek shelter under his father’s legs and it was almost as though the sky darkened as his father called out: “Here it comes!”
One day a dog was disgorged first, spewed out by the mighty force from Commando Drift and with the power of the whole Great Karoo behind the wave. The dog was nothing but flesh, its skin stripped off by the water, just freshly skinned meat, but you could see from the shape of its face it was a dog. His father said, “The poor creature must have fallen in the water on the other side and look how bare the force of it has stripped him.”
And other days there were pieces of wood, black and shiny and twisted, and sometimes an old shoe or item of clothing. With that first welling and spitting out of the underground water things emerged, his father said, which should have better remained hidden. One day, it was said, there was even a dead Sotho boy, thrust all the way by the Free State underground water to here in the dry Karoo where people spoke Xhosa and Afrikaans.
But it was only that first spewing that carried such grief, because then the next cough of water came, a foamy wave pumping out, and then another. It was as though the Karoo had choked and gasped for air and at first the water was sucked back into the underwater pipe on the intake of breath, and then it came out again wide-mouthed, and in the end there was the steady flow of thousands of gallons of water.
At such times, Ludo’s father the water bailiff was a rich man, master of a great power, the giver of generous gifts, provider of food and good fortune for many families.
People were grateful to his father, but also envious, because even though he also had a farm, as a bailiff he had an extra income (hence the John Deere with its neat little paired wheels) and he didn’t need to be so attuned to the harsh moods of the horizon or the diseases of the stock or the staff troubles on the farms or the falling price of milk or wool. No, his father had his register book, a clearly defined task, and authority. He carried a stopwatch which waited for no man, not even the richest landowner: his father could stand his ground and use his fists if a farmer refused to drop the sluice gate leading to his farm dam.
“If your time is past, it’s past,” his father liked to say, and yes, it seemed priestly, as though he was pronouncing on life itself.
And his father also said: “It stands to reason that water is this landscape’s great metaphor, how could it be otherwise? Every human emotion you can think of, water becomes its bearer.
“That’s why people are so upset whenever there’s an issue about water.
“Meddle with water, you’re meddling, deeply and dangerously, with the very soul of the Karoo.”
As a boy Ludo had no idea what a metaphor was; he confused metafoor with watervoor, thought his father was talking somehow about a furrow—but still he caught the gist of his father’s words.
So now he was coming back with all these memories dammed up inside him as he gazed out over the Karoo.
He came to look at the first hydrofracking machinery, out of a kind of curiosity because the newspapers were so full of the protest against what the oil giant wanted to do in the Karoo.
He wanted to see where new roads had been carved out for the trucks carrying the water to be mixed with chemicals before the poisoned mixture was pumped down into boreholes. The boreholes had tunnels branching off them, and the water would create enough pressure to fragment the rocks so that the earth’s gas could be released: the great harvest the oil company had in its sights, a new kind of farming, or perhaps even hunting.
He also wanted to see where the chemical depots would be, he was coming to bear witness, because he knew what went on deep in the underground layers of rock and shale. You can’t grow up in the Karoo without a feel for groundwater, the deep water. He knew how clear it ran down there, how ancient it was. As old as the centuries, untouched by the hand of man—that was how the water tables and the narrow lakes and fine veins of deepwater lay, so deep under the ground that sometimes a dowser walking over it with his forked stick felt no life there, so deep and secretly it lay.
It was the unconscious of the Karoo, the place from which the fountains drew their water. It was a quiet, private place, that place of water.
Now the petrol giant had come, boring holes through the strata, sending jets of poisonwater filled with chemicals down to explode and fracture, so that the poison sprayed and seeped through the deep veins and aquifers and he who knew about water, who’d grown up in a house where water was the one word that was even more beautiful than the words faith, hope, and love, he who came from that home, the son of a water bailiff, he knew it was a poison that would dam up in the unconscious of the heartland for ever.
It would become a false memory, a punishment and a burden which would eventually well upward to the surface. The poison would seep out and nothing would be left untouched. This would be the legacy of the petrol company and its people, with their highly-paid scientists and their huge drilling sites smelling of petrol and despair. And the legacy of the nation’s government, all crowded around the trough, seeing the Karoo only as semi-desert, a dry and arid place without bling, a place to drive through or fly over on the way to glitzier engagements. This government had forgotten the meaning of water.
The Commando Drift water, that spewing drift, the weir at Rooidraai, wasn’t the only water he knew as a child. There was another, clearer water, and it is this water he comes in search of now. A journey to a holy place, a pilgrimage.
Tired of life and himself full of dammed-up poison, Ludo is going back to the spring on the farm, the fountain farm, one last time. The place he seeks is “‘the unceasing spring.” Again, his late father’s phrasing. The spring wasn’t on their farm, but on adjoining land belonging to one of the big farmers, and as a child he’d climbed through the fence almost every day to go to the spring. When their neighbor spotted Ludo there he’d just say: “I want to go drink at the fountain, Oom.” That Oom, a flashy checkbook farmer, a boastful man who jealously guarded his land, had a reputation for shooting at trespassers, but he let the boy go his way and his answer was always: “The sweetest water in the district.”
The Law of Water was complex (“a trial from Our Lord” his father would remark, laconically), and the fountain fed a reed-lined river which led from the big farm down into a cement furrow that ran over several farmers’ lands, to the town, where it irrigated the community’s lawns, rose gardens, and orchards.
The spring belonged to everyone (just as it should be with the sea, he thought, and the fish in the belly of the sea), and that rich stoep farmer, with his Plymouth and the team of show horses which won the big trophy at every agricultural show, knew it. “It’s a warning to me,” he apparently once said to the minister, “that you can’t own everything under your feet. You can stand, feet planted wide, on your farm, you can stand and piss so that your smell hangs in the air and even the lynxes stay away if your piss smells strong enough, but that fountain makes you realize: There are some things which can’t be owned.”
It was a story his father, the water bailiff, told with relish. It was a comfort, because even if you had much less to your name than that fat cat bastard with his polished wife, at least there were some precious things that a man could not get deed and title to.
Some things are beyond possession.
It was a lesson for the wealthy farmers and a liberation for the envious who couldn’t afford a Plymouth themselves.
That was the way it was with that spring water, and as boy he climbed through the fence and walked through the reeds till he smelled the scent of the deep earth and came to the protruding koppie which made a kind of dip, with layers of shale where the earth was exposed, forming a deep basin where the water seeped up, as if into a cup.
It was cool there, where the water rose slowly through the stone strata. It wasn’t a bubbling spring with one clear source: the water issued from the stacked stone layers which could no longer withstand its slow, steady compulsion, even if it seemed somehow tight-fisted, reluctant. “The sure, slow force of the water.”
His father’s words, back when other matters held his father in their grip.
His father and others were angry because a big oil company wanted to demolish an old building—a church hall, the town’s first community hall—and build a gas station in its place, on the corner opposite the beautiful old church (built as an exact copy of a church in England).
Before the locals realized it, the oil company had bought the hall from a trust, and put plans in motion for a filling station with four gas pumps: the holiday traffic between Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth rose every Christmas and Easter weekend, and there was money to be made.
There was much to-ing and fro-ing, and somehow his father ended up as the chairman of the townsfolk’s pressure group. They opposed the demolition of the old hall and protested against the construction of such an eyesore so close to the church, there on the Karoo square where the English bound the two Boer traitors to chairs and executed them. After that their bodies were laid out in that very same hall for everyone to come and see how a firing squad can, as one man, fire one hole in a Boer’s chest, so neat and so final. The thing with war, his father always said, it’s just one big choice: You must choose the side you’re on. One of the traitors was a cousin of his father’s grandfather.
The story of the traitor-cousin was only one of many stories. That church hall held other stories too. He couldn’t remember them all and in his mind they flowed together into one story anyway—it became the story of things that were salvaged and precious, things that you mustn’t disturb or destroy, because they are the myths of place. They will grow and be embroidered upon, and be partially forgotten, things will be fabricated and deliberately omitted, but in the end the little hall stood there as so much more than just a shabby old building with a leaky roof and creaky old doors and floorboards infested with borer beetles.
This humble little hall (again his father’s words) is the hall in which our forefathers sit, all looking in the same direction. We are now on the stage, they are watching to see what we will do. We are now responsible, we speak for them.
“And we merely hold everything in trust for those that come after us, our children. This is now the hour of our watch, and we must be on our guard, ready to call out, ‘Halt!’ at the crucial moment.”
Oh yes, his father the bailiff had a way with words.
It was the memory of his father’s battle to save the church hall and stop the dreadful gas station that spurred him to take part in the anti-fracking demonstration in Cape Town, the week before his journey into the Karoo.
He was never one for public demonstrations, he preferred to carry out his protests quietly. Absence, he had always thought, perhaps mistakenly, spoke just as loudly as a noisy and negative presence.
It was a warm summer’s day when he drove from Paternoster to Cape Town and parked the Jeep on the Parade.
The first people were gathering in Zonnebloem. He felt awkward, out of place: there seemed to be many groups taking part in the demonstration. There was a sense of gaiety in the air, almost a carnival atmosphere, as the banners screamed out their protest:
Stop fracking now!
Leave our frackin’ Karoo alone!
He walked right at the back of the parade, in the slipstream of sweat and noisy chattering, and knew he would never feel at one with the protestors—there was something in him which always stood to one side, observing everything, wondering against what ghosts or masters in their own minds people fighting this or that cause were actually protesting.
Protest marches were like water, he thought. It’s never just a march. His father’s word: metaphor.
It was these thoughts and his uneasiness at activism’s narrow boundaries that made him decide to drive to the Karoo alone, in silence. He would go and see for himself and he would make his own quiet protest. Perhaps I will lie down in front of a bulldozer, he thought to himself. Perhaps I will poison a petrol engineer’s coffee, he smiled ruefully. But he wasn’t that man. What he wanted was to go and kneel down at the spring. Everything in him thirsted for this.
The road through the Karoo is hot and the sun is high. When he stops at a turnout somewhere between Beaufort-West and Aberdeen, there is only the sighing in his own ears, and a few bluebottles buzzing around the rubbish bin under the pepper tree. He smells the sweet scent of human shit and sees thick curls of it lying there with a shred of white toilet paper flapping in the wind. It smells like the prickly pear blossom in the donga behind their house, back then. For a long time he stands there remembering, listening to his own blood, then climbs back into the car and presses on.
What would be an exhausting journey through the semi-desert for others is now a source of refreshment to him, a long, rejuvenating draft from a glass of cool water.
The sweet scent of shit stays with him and it is not unpleasant.
He checks into the hotel with the Victorian dining and sitting rooms and naps for a bit. He will go out to the spring in the afternoon. The woman at reception says the roads out to the farm are busy: the oil company has lost no time converting the cabinet’s nod into convoys of water trucks, heavy machinery, and tankers. Hydraulic fracking has begun on a farm not far from the spring. As the first experiment, they say.
He drinks coffee on the hotel veranda. Then he drives out to the farm. The tar road runs past what used to be called the location in the old days. It still looks poor, desperately so in places. They hope, he knows, that the shale gas will improve their lot: bring work, and put bread on the table.
Just as the lines on the palm clenched on the steering wheel willed it, much remains the same. Here and there a new tree has been planted, or the road shifted a bit. The gate has a new sign, and some of the fences stand higher. But everything is as he has it in the palm of his hand, even the place where he and his father used to drive with the John Deere tractor—yes, that little dirt track still led down past the thorn tree hollow.
It is only next to the tar road that he sees tracks where the trucks have pulled over. In one place, always a popular picnic spot for vacationers on their way to P.E., a camp is now enclosed with high fences and even searchlights, he notices. Curious, he looks at the machinery and the trucks, the prefab huts and the workers with their hard hats. Some kind of depot, he thinks.
No anger wells up in him. A kind of resignation. He is surprised—is this all? So little emotion? People get so worked up, so passionate—and what of him? Does his skepticism seep through even to that which is most precious to him, the old things? Is he now so jaded that he can’t confront the petroleum giant’s big trick properly, take a stance and let his rage loose on it?
Seeing the oil company’s encampment, something wells up in him, a weariness, a kind of bluntedness, a feeling of surrender—what he always felt when he had to do anything other than work, and this attempt to get involved with the protest against the poisoning of the Karoo was just that kind of thing, something happening to him that he couldn’t quite connect with.
Today was his test, and if his blood stirred for this cause then he was worth more than he’d thought; he would also be a believer, an activist.
He still had some backbone, and man could not live by play alone, you needed faith too, and rage. You had to remember your own name, always; you had to be yourself and there was nothing that made you more you than when you had rage and passion and conviction. But there on his stoep in Paternoster all these things had evaporated, and even the pleasure of play had seemed as flimsy as cardboard.
Ludo stops far from the homestead. The place has often changed hands, he knows. On previous visits—first with the Opel and later with the Willys—the changes to the homestead and the farmyard were painful to observe. But he wasn’t here today to look at the clumsy handiwork and bad taste of others as they tampered with a historic building—he is here for the spring and it feels as though he is going to meet a lover, as if she could be waiting for him there.
He ducks underneath the wire where the fence has sagged. As it always is with these things, the distance he has to walk is shorter than he remembers. But the little river is flowing nicely, whispering through the reeds, and there are the familiar trails of algae and the scent of dammed-up slime, the sun glittering on the runnels where the water flows faster, and a group of bright finches clinging to the bulrushes, their nests hanging round-bellied over a quiet pool.
All around him stretches the bare veld and there ahead of him is the cleft and dip of stone the water rises from. He pauses when he hears a strange sound, but then thinks: Just my imagination.
His heart beats strongly in his chest—not just from the walk, because the stretch of sand at Paternoster he’s walked daily has prepared him well. It is because he can hardly wait to reach the sweet water. He has to press through reeds—more than he remembers—to reach the spot. It has changed: one part of it is dry, but at another split in the rock it seems there was more water than before.
It is this pool which lures him: the water dammed deep and black there, surrounded by rock, with a clarity that he was enchanted by as a child, and which he has almost forgotten.
He kneels at the spring. The familiar scent of groundwater, stonewater, strikes him full in the face. It dizzies him at first, the scent carries so many things he has denied for so long. Then a calm washes over him, a conviction that what he has done till now is right, was meant to be.
He is a youth again and he rolls up his sleeve, all the way to the elbow. He has looked forward to this moment for so long. He’s prepared himself like someone about to undergo a great ritual, something to do with a god or an old order: something deeply meaningful. He can feel his skin calling through the years to the water of this spring.
He can feel the thirst of his flesh, his limbs. It isn’t the thirst of the mouth, it is the thirst of the body and more: of the marrow.
He’s seen news of research in newspapers and on the internet: how every cell in the human body has a memory. They call it biological memory, and although the human body is 70% water, each of those cells also contains the dammed-up memory of that person—and, he believes, of that person’s ancestors.
If you experience trouble or trauma, it’s stored there in every one of your cells. It was not only your brain that remembered. Your body is the greatest rememberer of all.
And his body remembers that spring water and longs for it, and that is why he has returned after all these years.
He has come back because he remembers.
Perhaps he‘s also returned because she was the fountainhead on which he’d turned his back.
He is wearing pants and he knows he will walk away from here with two brown stains on his knees. But let them see he has been kneeling here. Let them see he has come back to pay homage.
Because he believes in cleansing, and although he is no banner waver, he believes that some things are primal, and holy.
He leans forward and plunges his arm deep into the dark water, startled by its terrible chill. He smells something, but it isn’t with his nose that he catches its scent, it registers high in his sinuses, in his skull.
It is an alien smell. It makes him think of battery acid or vinegar, but no, it isn’t that; he thinks of the smell of diesel and engine oil at a shining new gas station opposite a church in a small town, long ago, when the battle was lost. But that isn’t it either.
He thinks of the things that have been told to him over the years, the things that were recited to him, the things that were expected of him, the things that haunt him—it is that kind of scent, yes, but also not quite.
It is something more. It is as though the smell overwhelms the whole landscape, and now invades his body as well.
With his arm deep in the water, he raises his head. Ludo hears something, a grinding, a steady hammering: blood beating in his temples. He hears and he smells and he knows it has begun. It is as though his body already remembers the damage, it is already history.
He pulls his arm out and the skin is stripped from it: his arm and his hand look like the flesh-carcass of that dog spinning in the weir’s first spewing, years ago, with the whimpering fox terrier darting about his legs and his father, the water bailiff, the man who with legs planted wide and stopwatch in hand, lifted that first sluice gate, and they watched as the dog slipped through and was washed out to someone’s lands.
He stares in amazement as water drips from the limb, then in horror and disgust as he sees that the skin is seared from his arm, and his hand, even the lines of his palm erased. He knows it is the memory of the dog, not this spring, that brings this on him now, but he also knows that he will never use this hand again.
“Tragic, his skin so stripped,” his father had said. “As though that poor cur had landed in a tub of acid. But the crows and the maggots will soon finish him off when he washes out in a field somewhere. Perhaps other dogs will eat him. He’s nothing but meat now.”
His father lit up a cigarette.
“I wonder who his owner is, what kind of irresponsibility let that dog wander off. To end up here in the Karoo, stripped bare of everything.”
From Poison Karoo. © Etienne van Heerden 2012. Translation © 2012 by Isobel Dixon. All rights reserved.