Gecko’s childhood is one of sheltered, almost magical innocence on a farm in Natal. He spends his days taking barefoot expeditions with his dogs and his nights listening to Springbok Radio, unaware of the cruel force in his life that apartheid will soon become. With the start of high school in the Cape, Gecko is thrust into a political and personal awakening that is both tragic and heartfelt. With conscription into the South African army looming over him, Gecko’s future is as uncertain as his country’s. Blood Orange evokes the absurdity, longing, and fear of growing up white in the last decades of apartheid.
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About the Author
Troy Blacklaws is a South African writer whose work uses the lens of his own boyhood to illuminate the reality of living under apartheid. After moving from Natal, South Africa, to the Cape with his family at the age of nine, Blacklaws learned the truth behind the divisions in his country, first as a student at Paarl Boys’ High and then as a draftee for the army, where he spent two bitter years as an objector. Shortlisted for the Prix Femina for Karoo Boy, Blacklaws is a graduate of Rhodes University and has taught at international schools in Frankfurt, Vienna, and Singapore. He now lives and teaches in Luxembourg.
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By Troy Blacklaws
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Troy Blacklaws
All rights reserved.
Natal is the land of the Zulus. Hills dotted with cows and clay huts run from the Drakensberg down to the sea, where bananas, pawpaws and palms tangle on the sand and sharks glide in the deep.
I am called Gecko, for as a tot I gurgled with glee at the sight of the rubbery, magic-fingered lizards on the roof over my cot. I am seven and my brother Zane is just three. He is named after Zane Grey, writer of the cowboy paperbacks my father reads. Zane has the blue eyes of my father, the jeep-riding, cow-herding farmer. I have the olive-green eyes of my mother who was a nurse in Addington Hospital in Durban. Now she is just a mother out on the farm, far from the flicker of dizzy lights and the whistles of the barefoot rickshawmen.
Beauty is our Zulu nanny. She calls Zane and me white Zulus for our feet are hard from barefoot running and we love to mouth Zulu words. When she rolls her rolling pin, her fat jellies and she sings a Zulu song, sad as black bass weaving through reeds. Sometimes Zane and I and Beauty's boy Jamani drop our lizard chasing and bird hunting just to listen to her river song. When I was still a piccanin she tutuzela'd me on her back, a back-to-front kangaroo. Snug in the hollow of her back, I felt her humming and singing seep into me.
Beauty loves sweets: luckydip sweets, lollipops, jellytots, the lot. She sniffs out our hidden sweets and blames it on the rats. The other thing Beauty loves is seawater. We bring back Coca-Cola bottles of seawater from Chaka's Rock, where we caravan under palms in which monkeys chitter and chase. Beauty believes the seawater is magic. At sunrise, when the nkankaan bird cries ha ha haaa, she drinks a bitter swig of Indian Ocean and it makes her feel good and strong. My father says that it is all the swiped sweets that make her strong.
At dusk Beauty comes out to catch Zane and me for our bath, the dogs, Dingaan and Dingo, yapping at her heels. I dart off and hide in the hibiscus jungle. Zane ropeladders up the old jacaranda tree and Beauty has to lure him down with the bribe of a ride on her back. Then Beauty comes after me, with Zane clinging to her like a beady-eyed nagapie.
Jonas, the old man gardenboy who haunts the shadows of our backyard, giggles toothlessly at us and rolls a cigarette out of newspaper and Boxer tobacco. Owls swoop in the dusk and Cape turtledoves call karoo karoo in the blue-gums.
Beauty catches me in the end and squeezes me against her watermelon bubs. So it is that hippos kill more men in Africa than lions do. With a lion you are always on edge, for it may just chase if it is hungry. With a hippo you laugh as it plods in the mud. Then, before you can say Pietermaritzburg, it charges and it's bye-bye blackbird.
Cooped in the tub, Beauty scrubs us till our skin tingles. One time she swatted me on my bare bum because I stood on the edge of the tub and peed down onto Zane's head. Her swat stung like blazes. Still, Zane and I play monkey tricks on her. We splash her, so her pink pinafore looks like a map of the world with damp seas and dry land. We pull the doek off her head, and her spongy hair springs up free.
Whenever she baths her Jamani in the tin tub in the rondavel hut in our backyard, she Vaselines his skin until it gleams. Though I beg her to Vaseline us, she just rubs Zane and me dry with towels until it feels as if our skin will snakeskin off. While she dries us she jams her hips against the door in case we bolt barebum into the yard again. Jamani (in my tatty hand-me-down shorts) peeps at us from the door. He laughs at our larks but he never jumps into the tub with us. Beauty forbids him to but she will not tell me why.
Lucky Strike is our Zulu cook. He tells Zane and me stories while we eat our supper in the kitchen. Beauty and Jamani stay to listen for a while before going outside to their rondavel. Lucky Strike tells us how the warriors of Chaka, the Zulu king, ran barefoot over duwweltjies to prove their manhood. He tells us how the sangoma in leopard skins and cow tails reads the future in scattered bones, stones and cowrie shells. How he breathes over the bones to witch Xhosa enemies into porcupines or tortoises.
While his voice flows, Jonas juggles hissing pots and smoking pans on the iron stove that gobbles up bluegum wood.
On holidays we eat at the long table in the dining-room with my mother and father and the zebra skin on the wall. My father tells us how he shot the zebra, and of the time he shot two springbok with one bullet. By fluke the bullet flew through the head of one buck and felled another running behind. My mother tut tuts. Zane and I beg him to go on telling, but he wants to hear the BBC news on the radio. He has a deep lion's voice and when he goes tula, Zane and I tula.
The BBC tells us there is a star called Ringo in England. Ringo rhymes with our dog Dingo.
My father is my hero. He is strong and carries me up high on his shoulders so I can see over the heads at tombola fairs in Howick. My father taught me how to thread an earthworm onto a hook to catch bass, to curve a cricket ball in the air, to carve a cattie out of a forked stick to shoot starlings – ratty black birds that glint hints of green and pink in the sun.
Once a fluke tennis ball flew from his racquet to kill a swooping bat.
My father, like a hardy cowboy, does not cry. One time he had his foot inside a gumboot when the lawnmower blade took the tip off his big toe. My mother bound his toe in cloth she tore from his shirt to dry the blood. My father chirped: Hey, Nurse, ever had a fling with a farmer? My mother frowned: You think you're Gary Cooper.
To me my father is Gary Cooper in High Noon. If he says jump, I jump. If he says tula, I tula. And if there is one thing that riles him, it is when I do not eat my peas. If I could I'd gulp them down just to see him smile at me, his skebenga, his rascal, but when I swallow a soggy, rabbitpoo pea I have to jam my teeth to keep all my food from flying up out of me.
I stare hard at my peas and mutter a juju: kudu, Zulu, kangaroo, Timbuktu. But the peas will not be witched away to Timbuktu. My father always growls: Think of all the starving kids in Biafra. I never see how eating up all my peas helps the kids in Biafra. I want to tell my father to send my peas to Biafra. My father makes me stay at the table till all my peas are gone. This gives me time to think about all the starving kids in Biafra. Their fathers are too poor to shoot springbok or zebra, so they never eat meat.
I sit all alone and sulk over my peas. Lucky Strike undecks the table, but does not dare touch my cursed china. Lucky Strike clicks his tongue, as if to say: Fool boy to be caged in while your brother plays in the yard. I beg him for a pea juju, one that will turn the peas into pink luckydip sweets, but he just goes: Aikona, young baas, the magic is not for such small things.
Sometimes I drop my peas on the floor, hoping Dingaan and Dingo will gobble them up, but they just lick them and sniff at them. When my mother cooks butternut and peas I hollow out the butternut skin and tip it over to hide the peas underneath. A tortoise full of bitter green eggs. Although my mother knows, she never tells on me.
1969. A man has landed on the moon. We all go outside to look. On the veranda my father lifts me up onto his shoulders. There is the moon. A scoop of vanilla ice-cream in the sky. My father holds my mother's hand as if they know the American up there and are scared he will fall. Zane is fooling around with Dingaan and Dingo. I look long and hard but I see no man on the moon, just a fuzzy, rabbity smudge.
– I think he is on the other side, my mother whispers.
This is a pity. I have never seen a live yankee-doodle dandy, just flick heroes like Clint Eastwood.
– The world will never be the same again, my father says.
I have hardly discovered the world as it is, and already it is changing. What amazes me more than a man on the moon is a voice coming over the radio all the way from America, for you can see the moon with your bare eyes but you cannot see America even from the top of the Drakensberg.
After supper Zane and I always lie on the veranda and rest our heads against the matted and blackjacked hair of the dogs and listen to Springbok Radio with my mother and father. I am glad, whenever there is a murder on the radio, that we do not have TV in South Africa. The sight of blood and guts oozing out of a bullet hole would give me nightmares.
My father reads the Natal Mercury with his dusty boots up. You can smell the dust, the smoke from his Texans, his sweat from being out under the sun all day. After he's read the paper he picks up a Zane Grey. He unfolds a folded corner and he's gone.
My mother loves her bare, hard-skinned heels tickled and reads fat books with no drawings about the moon and the stars while the radio chats and the crickets chirp.
– Your life is all mapped out in the stars, my mother sometimes tells me.
I gawp at the moon and the stars: a scattering of white bones and shells thrown by a sangoma in the sky. I hope I will hear the whisper of his breath telling my future.
Is it in my blood to go overseas? Will I ever go as far from Natal as America? How will I die? Will I be jawed by a tiger shark? Or be bitten by a black mamba and jitter to death? Will I die in a motorcar, like James Dean? (Torn out of the Natal Mercury he lies inside my mother's Bible, among photographs and dry palm crosses.)
I see no man on the moon. I hear no sangoma in the sky. If they are out there, they are playing hide-and-seek.
At bedtime we pray to God with my mother, while my father stands in the doorway. Though we pray in the Christian way, I picture God as an old, white-haired sangoma in raggedy leopard skins, an assegai in one hand, a handful of rattling bones in the other. My mother says I am free to picture God as a Zulu if I want to, but I should not tell at school.
Zane and I murmur: God bless my brother, mother and father, grandmothers and grandfathers, Beauty and Jamani, Lucky Strike, Jonas, Dingaan and Dingo, my horse Tomtom. Chase away the mamba and the evil men. Amen.
The evil men are out there in the dark. They come from the north with pangas and guns. You do not see them in the dark. They kill old men and women in faraway farm houses. They burn things. They blow things up. I am glad my father has a shotgun to shoot the evil men, if they come. I sleep with my Swiss Army knife under my pillow. You never know if God has a gecko's eye on us, or if he is dreaming.
The only animal we do not pray for is old Amos, a beak-headed tortoise the size of a wine box. Lucky Strike told us he was once a Xhosa warrior, witched into a tortoise by a Zulu sangoma a hundred years ago. Zane and I ride him or stand tiptoe on his shell to pluck down high mangoes and bananas. I wonder whether he will ever be witched back into a Xhosa warrior. If so, would he know the things Amos has seen, or would he be dazed by a world of Chevs, radios, cinemas and aeroplanes?
We do not pray for Amos because we do not tangle with Zulu juju.
When I peek through my fingers, I see my father standing there, his eyes open. If he catches me peeking, he winks at me. Afterwards, my mother bends down and kisses us on the forehead. I breathe in her sweet jasmine smell. Then my father turns out the light with the Zulu words for see you tomorrow: Bona wena kosasa.
Then Zane and I are alone in the dark. We hear the choir of crickets and the murmur of Springbok Radio and the whimper of the dogs. They whimper in their doggy dreams of sinking their teeth into the guineafowl and moles that got away.
In the dark Zane spits out his dummy to nag me:
– Joo love Momandaddy?
My love seesaws. I hate my father when he growls at me for not eating my peas, or when he gives me a stinging hiding. I love him when he carries me high on his shoulders, or smokes his Texans with his boots up and ruffles my hair, calling me his little skebenga. I love my mother when she tells of the stars and God and other faraway things. I hate her when she locks me in the pantry till my father comes home, as she did when I cut off all her agapanthus flowers with my Swiss Army knife. She sat there among the blue flowers with her feet folded under her like a Chinese monk and cried: my poor love-flowers, my poor love-flowers. Then she locked me up in the pantry with the high-up window.
In the pantry I watch zizzing flies die on gooey fly paper. I keep my bare feet up on a chair for fear of frogs hiding in the cool shadows among my father's beer bottles.
Grandpa Barter gave me the pocket knife. He said I should not tell anyone but he once saved a Siamese princess from a tiger with the knife. As I lie in bed I gingerly finger the blade. One day I too will be a hero. Though there are no tigers in South Africa, maybe a lion will do. I may have to go to England to find a princess to rescue, but in England there are no tigers or lions to kill. And then there is my mother: she has this thing about hurting flowers and birds and playing with knives or guns. So, Zane and I kill frogs and birds with catties instead.
Another thing Zane wants to know is:
– If you got witched, which animal would you be?
– A kangaroo.
Zane giggles at the thought of the Zulus going awuuu awuuu at the sight of a kangaroo in Africa.
– Okay, a cheetah.
– Coz then I would run fast as the wind.
Or a dolphin, for then I would swim far out to sea and not be scared of sharks. Or the piet-my-vrou bird, the pezukomkono, and fly from the cold July to the fever sun of Abyssinia in the far north. Or a swift and fly further still, to England to see the circus clowns and dancing bears at Piccadilly. To see the Beefeaters and the bearskin hats of the soldiers guarding the queen.
Zane never wants to be anything but a monkey. I tell him over and over that leopards kill monkeys, but that does not bother him. A monkey is the animal he would be, if a Zulu sangoma witched him.
– What things do you love? Zane whispers.
I love the green juice of the Panado muti my mother gives me when I have a cold. I love the potato chips Lucky Strike cooks. I love the ghostbreath candyfloss you find at tombola fairs. I love to curl up like a cat and fall asleep in the wicker washbasket. I love to watch guyfox fireworks flower the sky from up there on my father's shoulders.
– I love banana ice-cream, chirps Zane.
When we go to the Durban beachfront, where the Zulu rickshawmen kick their feet up high into the sky, the watercolour paintbox of ice-creams always dazes me: granadilla and lemon and vanilla and strawberry and banana and lichi and all sorts.
Zane picks banana and banana and banana. Every time. All three scoops. You love banana like a bloody monkey, my father laughs. As for me, I always feel my life hangs on the choice. I'll have lemon and vanilla. No no, wait. Lemon and maybe lichi, and or maybe banana and ... He'll have lemon, lichi and strawberry, my father tells the ice-cream man. I hate strawberry ice-cream, but it is too late. The strawberry bleeds pink globs into the lemon and lichi, and no Zulu juju can unmix the colours.CHAPTER 2
Tomtom is my old, moth-eaten horse. Lucky Strike found him wandering in the hills and caught him for me. Tomtom loves to chew grannysmith apples out of my hand with his lazy, tea-coloured teeth. Lucky Strike taught me to ride him bareback and I ride old Tomtom everywhere: down to the likkewaan river and to the polo club. Sometimes I ride to the Karkloof falls, where sad men jump. Tomtom coolly grazes the wet grass at the edge. He is not scared. Just mambas and monkeys spook him.
I gaze down as the mist kisses my face and wonder how sad you have to be to jump:
down down down
Lucky Strike told me Chaka used to fling his wives down from Chaka's Rock.
In my dreams sharks tug unwanted wives off the rocks. Blood sifts into the water, like tea seeping from a tea-bag.
On the veranda in the evenings, I love to hear the sound of Tomtom snorting and shuffling to and fro. It is good to know he is out there, just beyond the glow of the gas lamp.
When the vervet monkeys come down from the hills Tomtom whinnies and paws the dust. The monkeys dart into the mealie field next to Tomtom's paddock to steal mealie cobs. Tomtom gallops up and down along the fence. The monkeys pick a cob and stick it under one arm and then pick another and try to stick it under, but the first cob drops out. So they pick another and drop another, until my father runs down, swinging the gas lamp, yelling voetsak voetsak.
Dingaan and Dingo are scared of the monkeys. They do not run down to the mealie field, but bark from the veranda. The cob-robbers voetsak, a furry flurry, scattering mealies for Lucky Strike to gather and cook for supper tomorrow.
For a long time after the monkeys voetsak, Tomtom is restless.
Excerpted from Blood Orange by Troy Blacklaws. Copyright © 2005 Troy Blacklaws. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
cowboys and Indians,
cobras and crocodiles,
fee fi fo fum,
a dry white season,