Read Devil's Valley Online

Authors: André Brink

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary

Devil's Valley (3 page)

The first part of the conversation I could still follow. Little-Lukas spilled whatever beans the Devil’s Valley could muster about its founding father, the Seer. His first arrival at the deep valley in the Swartberg. The perilous descent, for which the rear wheels had to be removed and the wagons propped up on bundles of wood to brake the pace. After the first day the oxen refused to budge, whereupon Lukas Lermiet first used his heavy hippopotamus whip on them and when that didn’t work, gouged out their eyes with a knife. Instead of solving the problem, it made everything worse. One wagon after the other, drawn by the crazed and blinded oxen, fell to fucking smithereens down the steep cliffs. Lermiet’s fellow trekkers turned back in small demoralised groups to retrace their own trail through the mountains, all their possessions lost. Not one of them ever reached the outside world again. It was winter, the weather was bloody awful, the snow lay knee-deep on the slopes. What happened to them was never recorded: they must have frozen in that desolate landscape, or fallen to their deaths down any of a hundred precipices.

Seer Lermiet grimly persisted. The heavier the odds the more clearly he saw their glorious future down below in the Devil’s Valley. In the end only his own family remained to trek ever more deeply into the mountains in the drifting snow. One of his sons rebelled, but was hit over the head with a length of wood and died after a day or two. Then three of his other sons ran off after tying him up in his sleep. They, too, must have died in the mountains; their bones were never found. All that was left were Lermiet’s wife Mina and a daughter and two small sons. Mina pleaded with him to turn back: couldn’t he see the whole thing was doomed? This valley was worse than hell itself. Lukas knew only one response. He gave her a thrashing that left her close to death. She never fully recovered. Abject with terror she and the remaining children went with the Seer into the valley of death where he’d seen the Promised Land in a fucking vision.

That was still only the beginning. The worst of the winter lay ahead. The two youngest children died of pneumonia. Mina was still bedridden from the flogging. Only then, Little-Lukas said, God appeared to the old shithead and advised him to turn back. All right then, the Seer announced, at the first signs of spring they would leave for Graaff-Reinet. For about a month they enjoyed a spot of peace and quiet, preparing for the return journey.

But on the day before they were to leave, Lukas Lermiet went into the mountains in search of a white gazelle he’d seen in another of his dreams. High up on the slopes he stumbled over a loose stone, fell down a cliff and shattered his bloody leg. He would never again be able to walk properly. Which meant he was doomed to spend the rest of his fucking natural life in that godforsaken place, and his family with him.

Shards and Tatters

This tale was followed, throughout the long night in Little-Lukas’s digs, with the bottle of OB between us, by countless others. But of the rest of our conversation I had only a seriously pissed recollection when I woke up again some time the next day in the dank suburban house in Gardens where I’d spent most of my married life with Sylvia. I couldn’t even remember how I’d got back. Also, there was other urgent and unpleasant business to attend to. The house had to be sold, Sylvia was demanding action. For the time being I still tried to stall, reluctant to face a battery of agents and house-seekers with snotty comments about damp patches on the walls, structural cracks, loose tiles, hazardous wiring. But through the ruins of my screwed-up world and the heavy hangover I continued to chase random memories of my night with Little-Lukas. The fucking shards and tatters and loose ends of stories. A smous returning with exotic wares from the farthest corners of the world. A girl with four tits. A child with goat’s feet. A large naked woman on a bed crawling with cats. And something about a magician who could track you down to the very end of the earth? Yes, I quite vividly remembered this yarn: someone had broken into a house in the Devil’s Valley, leaving a shoe behind; the magician clamped it in a vice—and an hour later a man with a shattered foot arrived crawling on all fours and howling with pain. And much more. But all of it mixed up and rather crazy, with no bloody head or tail to it.

Commotion

I did recall that at some stage during the night I’d scribbled the chappie’s address on the back of a cigarette box, and after much searching I managed to retrieve it among dirty underpants and gluey handkerchiefs in the laundry basket. A couple of times when I telephoned there was no reply, but at last one afternoon I heard Little-Lukas’s st-stammering voice in my ear. He sounded embarrassed, apologising for having wasted my time like that and shooting off his mouth. The inhabitants of Devil’s Valley were not supposed to confide in outsiders, he explained breathlessly. If his people were to find out…

I pulled out all the stops. For the first time in years something had caught me by the balls again. Little-Lukas remained diffident, stammering more and more as I waxed eloquent, like in the old days when I’d still dreamed about an academic career, long before the world had up-ended its shit bucket on my head. At last Little-Lukas, still far from convinced, relented: all right then, I c-could come back some time and bring my tape-recorder. But ‘some time’ was too vague for my liking. What about tomorrow? No, sorry, he had a t-test or something. The day after? A history assignment, for Professor van T-Tonder. Fuck the man gently but thoroughly. The day after that? And so I drove him back day by day until the following Wednesday. Time? Let’s make it three. Place? At his d-digs.

When I arrived, there was a commotion in front of the sprawling Victorian house where Little-Lukas had his rented room. A crowd in the street, two yellow police vans, an ambulance. Dead on the spot, an elderly woman told me at the garden gate when I enquired. She had wispy hair drawn into an untidy grey bun like a fucking merlon. Little Lukas was just crossing the street on his way home from lectures, she said with what I can only describe as funereal glee, when the car came charging over the stop street, driving off without even slowing down. Shame, such a nice boy, one doesn’t even know if he had relatives. She’d been like a mother to him, even if she had to say so herself. And what about the last month’s rent? But the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, and who were we to complain?

Smooth and Blunt

J
UST BEYOND THE two massive boulders that must have broken away from the highest cliffs in prehistoric times to come to rest at this spot above the Devil’s Valley, I noticed a movement in the fynbos. Something was coming my way. For a moment I was unsure whether it was man or beast, but it turned out to be the former. Benefit of the doubt. Not much more than a metre tall, and totally hairless as far as one could see, the face ageless and expressionless, smooth and blunt like a prick. His misshapen legs were too short for his body. He was barefoot. Two large flat feet that seemed to have no bloody bones in them, like a fucking duck’s. In one hand he carried a catapult, with the other he was scratching his groin.

Involuntarily I stepped back, glancing round in the direction of the old dude who’d shown me the way, but he was no longer to be seen.

“I’m looking for the road down to the valley,” I explained. “The old man up there told me…perhaps you could…”

He grimaced with open mouth, made a vague gesture with the hand holding the catapult, and waddled off into the fynbos. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. But after a moment he came stumbling back and waved at me again, making an unmistakable gesture with his obscene blunt head. I began to follow him. Abandon ye all hope.

It was dead quiet among the high cliffs, and all the way along the great slope as we went on, a silence which made me feel totally fucking alien: not the usual kind of silence one expects in the mountains, which is at least broken from time to time by a rustling of wind or the shrill of a cicada or whatever; but the silence of something missing, something lost. I couldn’t explain it. And it was only much later, at least a week, before I realised what it was: in this godforsaken valley there were no birds, not a bateleur or a grey partridge, not a weaver or a sparrow or a swallow of any description, sweet fuck-all. But by that time it was like already too late.

Of The Soul

There was something haphazard about our progress down the mountains, as the garden gnome didn’t seem to be following any known route. From time to time he would stop to fit a small pebble into the skin of his catapult, close his eyes and let fly. Zen and the art of whatever. Then he’d grin in my direction, mumble something, grab at his fly, and start waddling off along the trajectory traced by the pebble. Until we’d get to the spot where it fell, when the whole process would be repeated.

In this way we zigzagged crazily down ever more arid slopes, among what is usually described as towering cliffs, ranging from yellow through orange to deep red, across huge carbuncles which at a distance appeared fucking unscalable. Once we seemed to head straight for a blank rock-face, but at the last moment the little runt swerved into a small thicket, and motioned towards a hole through which it was just possible to crawl on all fours.

In passing I glimpsed a series of rock paintings in various pigments, white and black and sienna and ochre, on the sloping ceiling right above my head: eland, elephant, little men with bows and arrows and spiky hard-ons. Right across the scene was a name chiselled into the rock in large uneven capitals: STRONG-LUKAS. But there was no time to look more closely or ask the odd question, otherwise I’m sure my waddling guide would have buggered off without me.

Beyond the breach in the cliff the path became easier for a while. Until we reached the next damn obstacle. Then the next, and the next. Every now and then I made a hurried smoke-break. In my fucked condition it’s all that helps. Then off we’d go again. One hour, two, four. My chest was rattling like an old·fashioned bellows, my lungs were burning. If only I’d been one of the fitness freaks who regularly climb Table Mountain over a weekend, but apart from raising my right arm or the occasional short series of pushups with something female poised below, I take no exercise. Perhaps this trip would bring on the inevitable coronary, which might at long last get home to Sylvia what she’d lost. Fat chance, though, thinking of her parting shot: “You’ve got syphilis of the soul, Flip Lochner.” The filthiest and truest thing she ever said to me. (“Fuck you,” I answered. “What makes you such a sad case is that you can’t even swear properly,” she said. “You have no imagination.”—“Fuck you,” I told her again.)

As we went down, the kloof grew more and more bloody impossible. And more parched. What from above appeared fertile, even lush, turned out to be screwed by green drought. Even shrubs and bushes that still put up a green face crumbled to dust as one brushed against them. The ravine was becoming narrower too. Overhead the cliffs were closing up. The remaining sliver of sky turned the deep blue of a bloody bruise.

Stopping for another life-saving draw, I asked through the smoke, “You sure you know the way?”

Prickhead uttered another sound which might mean anything, his fingers working frantically in his groin. But that was as much as I could get from him.

“Where are we going?” I tried again.

He seemed to find that very funny, for he convulsed in laughter, so violently that I began to fear epilepsy. But after a while he placed another goddamn pebble in his catapult and let fly. And off we went again.

Some way down the next slope I was forced to take off my rucksack as our ledge was shrinking to a pencil track. My guide continued to move along surprisingly bloody light-footed on his padded feet, but I stepped on a loose stone, staggered in panic, let go of the rucksack to regain-my balance, and just made it. The bag went tumbling down the fucking precipice until it was finally stopped, fifty or sixty metres down, by a grotesquely distorted wagon-tree. Shit. This was all I needed.

Splinters

I cautiously picked my way down after the rucksack, managed to get hold of it and struggled back to the ledge. There I squatted down for a while to catch my breath, feverishly undoing the bloody thing to check the contents. Prickhead stood watching in fucking fascination as I rummaged. Thank God the tape-recorder was packed deep inside, wrapped in clothing; at a glance it seemed okay, but I would have to examine it more carefully later. But the camera was fucked. The broken lens came tinkling from the bag as I undid it. All I could do in a kind of impotent rage was to throw the useless thing into the void that gaped below, as the phrase goes.

Still shaken, I turned to the precious cardboard box in the side-bag. From outside it still seemed all right. Then my heart sputtered as I saw a moist stain spreading through the cardboard. With clumsy fingers I tore the box open, prepared for the worst. My fucking bottle of fucking White Horse down the drain. Everything in the box in which I’d so lovingly cradled it was soggy, and riddled with sharp splinters. Inevitably I cut a bloody finger in the process. Under the gnome’s beady eyes I sucked my finger, then began to remove the splinters one by one from the soggy mess in the box. The way an army doctor might pick shrapnel from a wound, except I’m not sure the doctor would so lovingly suck each piece of shrapnel clean. Even the grainy substance of the contents of the box didn’t put me off. Although what was left after I’d cleared away the worst looked pretty unappetising. I grimly replaced the box in the bag.

It was some time before I scrambled up again to resume our journey. Just in time, it seemed, as Prickhead had started working away so furiously at his groin that his eyes were beginning to get a glassy stare. Worked up into a proper lather of another kind, I stumbled on after him, following the latest pebble from his catapult.

Until, at bloody last, we crossed a rockfall to the bottom of the valley where a dried-up riverbed ran along a line of withered trees. Old wisps of beard-moss and lianas studded with ferocious thorns hung scraggily from the highest branches. One of the largest trees, an ancient wild fig, had been split from top to bottom, scorched by lightning in some forgotten time. It must have been the mother of all bolts. Presumably the whole valley bed became one churning flood after a bad storm, but right now it was as bleached as bone. The trees were still alive, but only just; their roots must reach half-way down to bloody China.

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