Cartoon Man

Vernon R. L. Head

2022

Introduction

The modern traumatized hero is usually a nobody. Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and the eponymous protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine are nobodies. The female characters in  Indian Partition novels are also nobodies. The suffering of such heroes is not necessarily about any transformation (though as Roy Scranton argued, their trials can serve a didactic function). In contrast, though Rowling’s Harry Potter is an abused child, his extraordinary gift somehow turns his suffering into a preparation—part of the the Hero’s Journey– for the challenges that will turn him into a hero. Nobodies do not have any such destiny awaiting them. The challenges are for the author. Somehow they have to make the reader care about nobodies.

Hannes Breytenbach, the traumatized hero of Vernon Head’s “Cartoon Man”, is such a nobody. Eighty-year-old Hannes is “the country’s only white petrol attendant”. The country in question is South Africa. His deeply suntanned skin often leads strangers to think he’s black. He makes odd sounds, is kind to strangers who stop at his pump, sings enthusiastically in church, and collects matchboxes to contain, so to speak, all the unlit apocalyptic fires in the world. Vernon Head succeeds in making us notice this nobody. Enjoy!

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Cartoon Man

‘Kazoooooooooooooooooooom!’ said old Hannes Breytenbach, his shirt a cape, arms outstretched in the heat. A collector of matchboxes from all over the world, he was the country’s only white petrol attendant.

The Karoo town – the size of a cardboard box – ended in the veld on a line with bits of plastic flapping against a fence; a place abandoned by rain (and by the youth) for many years. Nine blue trees lined the street to the church. Town was ten old white houses and a small white church with a door that had no handle, often ajar and chanced upon by a family of sparrows. Only the petrol station lived beyond disrepair, the forecourt connecting to the edge of the busy N1 freeway.

On the petrol station wall outside the men’s toilet (not on the wall outside the women’s toilet) hung a new notice in large black letters behind glass: Mobil is an international name. Changing it was a huge challenge. We share our conversion from Mobil to Engen, the most successful re-branding exercise ever undertaken in South Africa. Welcome to the Rainbow of 2001!

#

‘Here Boss,’ said Pieter to Hannes, who was not his boss, ‘full one from that yellow Alfa Romeo Giulietta 116 over there,’ pointing his dark brown finger, reaching over the pump, offering his colleague a Holiday Inn. Hannes turned the box over: a pretty swimming pool, a lady lying in the sun. He shook it like a rattle, sniffing the edge with his wide nose.

‘Thanks,’ said Hannes, grinning in a twirl within the scent of matches, and within fumes coming from the fuel leaking from the hose. He could remember smells somehow, finding a new memory just then, of which he owned so few.

Hannes could read a matchbox like a map. Perhaps it was the texture and the shape and the colours, and, of course, there was the smell. A many-matchbox-day was a special day, packaged in little gifts of images of figments of his past, lingering, rebuilding – piece by piece – his shattered head.

The petrol station was like a country to him.

The N1 freeway was the world.

 Any matchbox would do, especially those with red lipstick marks that sometimes had one or two burned, twisted matches amongst all the rest.

‘A new one, Boss,’ said Jannie to Hannes, ‘and it’s also full.’

‘Thanks,’ said Hannes, patting the bulging overall-pocket on his chest.

Most of the matchboxes came from Pieter and Jannie, some from Coenie. Hannes was not supposed to speak to clients.

His job was to clean windscreens and to insert and remove the hose on instruction. Under no circumstances was he to work the till due to the accident. Manager Joubert was careful not to overwork Hannes, who, although of strong physique, was eighty-one years old.

In the busy season matchboxes arrived from every direction and Hannes’s golden tooth glinted next to his damaged tongue as he grinned. Each box a snapshot of somebody’s journey.

The past a storm in his head, distant dreams floated in stories he could not quite reach. Yet he was grateful to have friends like Pieter, Jannie, Coenie and Manager Joubert, who seemed to like the many strangers who came and went, becoming ambassadors in the delivery of all their little gifts.

‘Matchbox Heaven! Vrooooooooooooooooooooooooooom!’ said Hannes to two sparrows as a green Toyota Corolla 1.3 GL zipped along on the freeway in a tail of sky.

‘Here’s one that looks like it’s from Cape Town,’ shouted Coenie, shaking it above his pump, ‘and it has the mountain in the sea on the front.’

‘KABOOOOOOOOOM!’ said Hannes, another car shooting by.

Bald now, once the golden blonde boy – or so they had said – before falling off the back of his Sharpeville police truck long ago – or so they had said – he scratched his dented head. These days, Hannes’s hands and face and arms were the colour of the earth because being a petrol attendant was hard on a white skin. His eyes were black; his mother having said – according to Mrs Joubert at the church –: ‘Hannes, your eyes are from an undecided God.’

Every morning Hannes polished his tooth with a white cloth until it glittered; somewhat of a trophy, last of a kind in his mouth.

In fact, Manager Joubert would tell people that Hannes was the last of a kind: late for work every day as if the World of Coming and Going was his playground; Hannes the Cloud-gazer; Hannes the Singer to Birds and Early Evening Bats; Hannes the Protector of Wandering Snails and Lost Desert Ants.

Hannes would waltz onto the forecourt dancing with an imaginary partner, and he would pause and bow in the dawn and in the middle of the day and just before dusk. Everyone clapped in kindness that was now a ritual of delight. Yes, every day was a matchbox party!

#

A fifteen-minute walk from the petrol station was his inheritance: a small house on the side of the N1, the main arterial between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Up against the house stood a tall windmill, and below that a circular reservoir made of corrugated iron in the shape of a giant tin can. Relics of remnants of the family farm. When viewed at sunset from the town below, the little homestead looked like a fantastical creature in a children’s picture book: the whizzing round head on a thin neck, fluttering a shadow of strange wings across the road and the world.

Vonkelvisspruit had once been the biggest farm before reclamation by the bank.

On most mornings in the sunlight a black crow sat near the top of the windmill, just below the spinning blades and directly above the kitchen door, waiting for a piece of toast and strawberry jam spread kindly, and once in a while a spoon of scrambled eggs. The square house was made of brown wood. Once four stables, it was now four rooms: a bedroom, a living room, a bathroom and a kitchen, each with an identical window and door, each only accessible from the outside. Wandering from room to room, he cooked and pissed and slept and sat. Yes, there went Hannes, waddling back and forth all night, singing to the owls. Often, he would leave the bathroom door open in the mornings, allowing a plume of white toilet paper to escape on the wind back to town.

Hannes screamed in delight from the petrol station on one such day, looking up into the sky, a white snake against the blue. Jumping off the ground, as if to fly, loose shirt alive on his back, feet clattering like beetles, he made a Batman mask with fingers on his face.

‘Sometimes, I think you’re not lekker, Boss,’ said Coenie.

Sometimes,’ said Jannie, with a laugh.

‘Your toilet is dancing up there again,’ said Pieter, handing Hannes a Garden Court Special Sparkles: Light Us with Care.

‘Dancing just for me,’ said Hannes.

Manager Joubert came out of his office sipping coffee, shaking his head. The snake twisted, contracting into a small worm, hiding inside the sun, smaller and smaller still, then down it darted, searching for food, and for a moment it stretched as it came, fast and unpredictable. Everyone gazed, petrol dripped, coffee dripped, a lady in a maroon Volvo C70 smiled, the snake hid behind the canopy of the forecourt, then under the huge roof it came, chasing a family of sparrows before settling in a long undulation across the concrete floor. ‘Hannes, your friend is hungry again and he’s grown today it seems,’ said Manager Joubert. ‘A whole roll this time, hey.’

#

Mrs Joubert had explained that way back when, the first two months in the hospital in Johannesburg had not been of any assistance to Hannes’s empty head, and neither had the prayer sessions in the church here at home. ‘Your head is a cave now, Hannes, and your nose healed flat like the veld,’ she said whenever he attended church rocking back and forth in the front pew.

#

Memories came and went for Hannes, now and then, like burning little flames, bright at first, then gone, just like the cars up and down the N1: shining things in wisps of smoke, drifting in distant songs. Sometimes the songs screamed in his eyes that would burst into fire on his face:

‘Boss, pass that lappie,’ said Jannie to Hannes, once.

‘Boss, I need help with the hose,’ said Pieter.

‘BOSS?’ shouted Coenie. Hannes stood still, staring at the road. In the shade of the office wall, next to a pile of old tyres that leaned to one side, he leaned to his left, sliding down the wall onto his back like a corpse. The tooth shone, alight in the heat. A sparrow sat on his right foot; its grey head tilted to one side as it sung.

‘BOSS!’ shouted Jannie to Hannes, again. ‘You ok, Boss?’

‘I can hear the running fires faraway, in the north,’ said Hannes.

‘I’ve got a new one for you Boss. Looks like a Jo ’burg Zoo with zebras,’ said Coenie, just then. ‘The matchsticks are white and the heads are black. Smells nice.’

#

‘Yeeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,’ said Hannes, slapping a thigh like a cowboy, waving a cap in the air at the sight of a truck slowing down, about to peel off the N1 into the forecourt, flickers clicking and then the hiss of brakes. He was rubbing the chrome hubcap of a purple Ford Cortina XR6, sending a dove up into the girders of the roof above the pumps. The pump nearest to his ear ticked like a clock. In it came, the truck shivering as it slowed, steam lifting into Hannes face. He smiled in the nectar of it all, the long truck swaying gently now, rolling into place, many tyres chasing each other in rows. ‘SIMBA, ROARrrrrrs with flavour,’ said Hannes, bit by bit, reading the words as they passed his face.

‘You hungry again, Boss,’ said Jannie, looking at the moving giant advertisement for a packet of tomato crisps.

‘He’s always bloody hungry,’ said Manager Joubert, with a grin.

‘Fill it up?’ said Pieter to the truck driver.

‘Yes please,’ said the truck driver.

Hannes let out a low growl. On the flank of the truck, on the giant packet of crisps, was painted an orange lion wearing a golden crown of jewels glinting like his golden tooth – right there and then he wished he could collect the sides of trucks too.

#

‘He likes to collect matchboxes from all over the world,’ said Pieter to a lady driving a powder blue Toyota Hi-Ace 2.2L, ushering her to a pump. She wore a badge on her lapel that read ‘tour guide’ on top of an enamel South African flag. ‘Hannes will serve you. He’s in charge of this pump today.’

The vehicle was full; the lady spoke German with an Afrikaans accent to her passengers; a small microphone against her cheek, her face pretty, eyes big and blue, hair blonde in sophisticated whorls, everyone in the back fat, wearing white T-shirts of Robben Island sitting in the sea.

‘Toilet, anyone?’ said the tour guide.

‘Noooo,’ they all said at once, in happy German.

‘Suntanned like me,’ said Hannes quietly to a big woman in the far back row, who was wearing a white floppy hat. He filled the tank in silence, her side window open, due to the heat, a scent of chocolates-and-cream drifting from her neck onto him, a German thing he imagined, turning to the pump. He rose, the dripping spout in his hand. Her arms were pink. He could smell her pinkness, the suntan lotion sharp. This was indeed his big day – first day in charge of a pump: pump number 3. Manager Joubert had said it would be number 3, the newest pump.

‘I didn’t think black people got suntanned,’ said the chocolate-and cream-lady into Hannes’s ear, with a smile, as he stood beside her face. She photographed Hannes as he completed his task filling the tank with a final drop. Leaning against a beaded buffalo, a fluffy giraffe and a black toy penguin that squeaked due to its polished surface, she photographed him again and said: ‘I love your country.’

Hannes concentrated on his job. He wiped every window like never before, making sure he had filled the windscreen-wiper tank to the brim. He even gave the rims a quick polish; they sparkled in the sunlight reflecting a cloud that became a white creature with stretched wings and eyes that wobbled. He walked to the driver’s window and spoke to the lady behind the wheel: ‘Oil and brakes okay, Madam?’ (Yes, he had said that very well.)

‘Fine thanks,’ said the tour guide.

Numbers had stopped flashing in red dots on the front of the pump. He watched and he counted again. He was doing well, yes, better than he had thought he would do. ‘Three hundred and two rand, please. Cash or card, Madam?’ he said it as he had heard it said. Today was not a day for matchboxes.

‘Oh shit, I’ve left the bloody thing in Matjiesfontein,’ said the tour guide softly, in a careful whisper, not to let her clients in the back hear.

Hannes paused, looking up into the distance that was the road ahead: ‘It’s ok Madam, we can’t let you run out of petrol on the N1, don’t worry. It’s my birthday.’

#

The strip at the bottom of the television screen read: ATTENDANT LAUDED FOR GIVING WOMAN MONEY FOR PETROL:

The national newspapers all said: ‘Marlene van Tonder extolled the virtues of the kind man who helped her. “He paid with his own money, can you believe it,” she said. “He gives me hope for South Africa.” By Wednesday morning van Tonder’s post had been shared over 1000 000 times and received nearly 500,000 comments of praise, like this one from Sampie Smit-Koornhof: “Today you give hope to my country. May God bless you and your soul.” And James Malherbe said: “What an amazing example.” Janet McRoberts said: “Within each of us is good. You see what these people can do.”’

#

 

‘We are looking for Hannes,’ said a man with a black notepad.

‘He’s not here, Boss,’ said Jannie.

‘May I see the manager, please?’ said a redheaded man with a microphone, stepping out of the van.

‘Over there in the office, Boss,’ said Coenie.

‘You have to knock on the glass, the manager is in the back,’ said Jannie.

The men walked off towards the office, followed by other men carrying a large camera, a silver umbrella on a stalk, and a black box that looked like a car battery covered in stickers from various sporting events. Jannie recognized a sticker with the Springbok logo and one with the 2000 Olympic Games; he did not recognize the others and wondered about matches.

‘Hello, could we speak to you about Hannes, Sir?’ said the first man, as he knocked.

‘He’s not here, but you can go to his house over there, up the hill,’ said Manager Joubert, pointing with his coffee mug, shaking his head.

‘Perhaps a few words from you boys?’ said the first man.

‘Has he won the Lotto, Boss?’ said Jannie and Coenie and Pieter together, huddled at the back against the glass, the forecourt now abandoned, except for the van and the sparrows on the roof.

‘If it’s about this stuff in the papers, you should really leave him alone, he’s happy as he is,’ said Manager Joubert. ‘We are all happy as we are here, with the world on the move all the time. We are in the passing through business.’

They opened the door because nobody answered the knock. The white paper snake came out into the sky to dance. The black crow shat its usual shit from near the top of the windmill and the breeze nudged blades of light across the group of men, and then across the freeway in long wedges like the many wings of a dragon. The reservoir sloshed and from over its steel edge dribbled water like spit. They opened another door. Hannes stood naked in the kitchen – his suntan for all the world to see – eating strawberry toast.

‘Hannes?’ said the man with the notepad, the microphone hovering above his head.

‘Hey, what the hell do you want?’ yelled Hannes, and he laughed.

‘The whole of South Africa couldn’t believe your kindness. So, we came to meet the man behind the mask.’

‘TADAAAAAAM,’ shouted Hannes opening his arms wide, tapping his big feet and curling his prehensile toes, standing on a sea of matches, flanked by matchbox walls, matchbox chairs, a matchbox table, and floating matchboxes on strings, ‘no secrets here,’ and he jangled his long white dick.

#

Another good day came and went straightaway – all days were nice except for rare days when a bad story might momentarily leap and burn behind Hannes’s eyes – and his pockets continued to fill with full matchboxes.

On the way home he spotted a mound in the middle of the road. He knew it to be the middle of the road because the mound was on the double-white line upon which the tiny steel discs bulge, the ones that glow like crickets at night. At first, he thought it to be a black plastic bag filled with fruit, almost sure of that, a wet patch leaking from the side, usually a sign of squashed oranges or peaches or nectarines, or even grapes. (Once, he had received such a bag filled with squashed papaws in utter ripeness, delicious beyond anything he could remember. Ooooooooooooweeeee, he had said then.) The tips of the packet shivered in the breeze probing the sky – this breeze had reliable scent – as he neared the top of the rise, alongside his house. (He smiled when he looked at his house, the great creature stretching, lifting a head in a proud way, smelling him too, the road and the veld, fumes strong and rich and tasty.)

Over the years, he had been surprised at the things people tossed from cars and trucks and carts on their way to cities. Every day the N1 was generous to him – without exception – along his stretch between the petrol station and his front doors. He would wave, thanking the givers. He remembered the tumbling pram of green cloth rabbits covered in bells, a special offering he had paid forward to the church due to its arrival on a Sunday; the silver cigarette lighter in the verge of vygies on a hot summer night, which he had not used yet.

He looked at the black bag in the middle of the road. Up ahead he would be closest to it, on the bend.

This N1 was very long, he was sure of that, filled with full matchboxes moving across the country, yes. It was also full of sirens as well. Red ones, blue ones, yellow ones, and silver ones that flashed the loudest before the sun came up. This N1 was a place of cows and sheep and goats in great cages that came and went when the cities were hungry. This N1 was more than a road to Hannes. It was his embrace to the world when he waved, blew kisses and did his famous waltz, offering a route for his mind in circumvolutions, bringing day dreams and night sweats in rushing faces. A path along which he looked for himself every day, just like those messages inside the matchboxes on the tips of matches.

The most productive times were early evenings – traffic passing this way and that all day – allowing an accumulation of scatterings by dusk. People threw things away in the way a farmer might chuck feed for chickens before a storm.

Hannes rushed up to the black bag now, pausing above it, having waited for a turquoise Audi A4 to pass, and he yelled: ‘CROW!’

‘Kraak,’ said the crow.

‘Kraaaaak,’ said Hannes, bending down to pick it up. The belly warmed his hands. The little heart beating fast, pushing a drop of blood along his finger, red like his heart, he surmised. So light, his hands felt empty but for the warmth. The bird was blacker than he had observed when such birds glided above him on the way to work, blacker than the shadows of his house, blacker than oil on concrete or the cross on the top of the church. This was a close black, very close; inside it he found iridescent white. The eye was black-white, blinking slowly. He inspected the crow like a doctor might, opening the wing stained red. Cracking to the touch a long feather fell, as did smaller grey feathers, escaping onto the breeze. He closed the wing. The crow called again, a sound of the dust, low and hot and flat; a sound that fell down onto the tar. At his left foot was a stain – still glistening – on which lay a Wimpy rapper slightly bent in cheese sauce, a gift of passing through.

The crow turned its head, looking up at Hannes, fluffing the feathers on its neck, the beak widening in the slow way of old people, as a night might widen, regurgitating a golden fish as it died.

Hannes cried like he had never cried. In his anguish, and in the middle of the N1, he was alone, sucked into a distant recollection of death.

#

She walked in between the low bushes of which there were many, the dry edges cutting her ankles. Higher bushes pierced her thighs. The highest branches – no longer trees – whipped thorns, tearing into her shoulders and the sleeves of the white dress. She walked and she did not turn back. The ground was black. Her white shoes were black. The dust made her back black, the black sticking to her wet skin in the heat. The afternoon was black in old smoke that was flattened by the sun. She came to the gate, pushed it forward with both arms, shoving at everything, and it swung fast with a scream making a fan in the sand like the wing of an angel. Inside, all the sheep lay everywhere, scattered in white ribs.

‘Ma,’ shouted Hannes.

‘…’

‘Ma,’ shouted Hannes.

In an act of natural misanthropy, she walked forward. The black was red. Her red hands made the front of her dress red. And she began to sing…and sing…and waltz…

#

Cars wailed and children abused the air with finger signs of disrespect. Hannes remained still in the middle of the N1, his N1 giving pasts. The air was cold and he raised his one arm, more black feathers of the crow fell, in the palm of his right hand the tail of the golden fish curled like the dusk.

#

The summer flies were fat, worse than ever, slow in the way they walked across a face, too lazy to fly in the Karoo. ‘This road passes quickly through the veld like shit through the ass of a sheep, Boss,’ said Jannie.

‘Sunday morning is like this before church,’ said Hannes, dressed in his pale khaki safari suit, Sunday socks and Sunday underpants.

They sat and waited in the creeping sun. Coenie laughed at Hannes’s farts. Only Hannes could make such musical farts.

‘Here comes an INTERCAPE bus, looks full,’ said Pieter.

‘My pump today,’ said Coenie, ushering it in.

‘Hannes, help him, Boss,’ said Jannie, busy with a pile of forms – Manager Joubert not there that day.

‘Yes, yes yeeeeeessireeeeee,’ said Hannes, clapping and hopping, sliding up against Coenie in a salute he must have learned long ago from other men. ‘I only have to be at church at 10. A bus! A bus-eee-bus bus!’

The bus was long and high, as was true of all buses roaming the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg, too long for Hannes to walk around without being shouted at, too high for Hannes to look in through the windows, a feat he had once achieved without Manager Joubert noticing. These busses had tantalizing windows capturing the sky and birds like dark sunglasses do, wide and filled with many friends. Matchbox Central. This INTERCAPE was new, shining rims glinted in the sun that came from the side, the smell of polish strong in the heat, perfume oozing from the seats as the big doors gushed, unfurling steps. Hannes scanned the great wall in front of him: a vast orange setting sun on a red background, a white eagle soaring across its face. He closed his eyes and opened them quickly, again and again and again. He could make the eagle’s wings flap in that sky if he blinked. He saw beaks of violence then, wanting to fall.

#

‘Will it eat the lambs, Pa?’ he said to the driver.

‘What?’

‘Will it eat the lambs?’ asked Hannes as he cried.

‘What?’

‘Hannes, my Boss,’ said Coenie. ‘Come help me this side, at the back.’

‘He collects matchboxes and matches,’ said Jannie to the driver, shrugging his shoulders.

Black men in Kaiser Chiefs soccer tracksuits climbed off the bus, making their way to the toilet in chattering groups, some held headphones to their ears, dancing as they walked, some walked silently, two younger men walked arms-around-shoulders in a sort of crab walk, just for the hell of it. There was laughter in the heat. There was fun. Soccer is an energetic profession and the trip had been long. Hannes held a bucket at the back end of the bus washing the dust, now. The red indicator lights flickered as they can do in the park position. The family of sparrows bathed in the puddle. Hannes sang. Coenie was at the pump, Pieter checked a tyre, Jannie stood nearby waving away flies.

‘Are you white?’ said the soccer player to Hannes.

‘Boss?’ said Hannes.

‘Here,’ said the soccer player, giving him a R100 note.

#

The church service started at 10:15, the extra fifteen minutes had evolved over one hundred years due to dirt roads becoming tarred roads and people becoming lazy. Hannes was never late, today was no exception; he sat on his wooden pew in the front row, his alone, for all kinds of reasons. Mainly, it was his because it said Breytenbach on the side in dirty brass. Each farm had a pew for two people. If it was a big farm of many children there was an opportunity to own more pews. Manager Joubert stood on the small wooden stage behind the cracked pulpit that hid most of his white gown. All the wood was dark like ebony. A black sash hung around his neck, ending in silver tassels across his waist. His grey hair was combed into a shining circle – not unlike a storm. Large bouquets of faded plastic flowers stood high on wooden stands either side of his head, as was their usual place. These plastic Lilies of the Valley were white. Mrs Joubert would spray the flowers with Air Scents Air Enhancer of the Hills before each service. Behind Manager Joubert was a white sculpture of Christ; some would say it had the face of a cartoon that day because a shitting brown sparrow sat on its tilted head. Manager Joubert looked across at Mrs Joubert playing the wooden piano, offering a tune about pilgrims on the sea, or so Hannes thought. Farmers came in twos, and there were no children.

‘We are gathered here today to give thanks,’ said Manager Joubert, his sermon similar to the sermon of the previous Sunday, and that of the Sunday before. ‘The wisdom of drought would indeed pass into the wisdom of dust, praise be–’

‘–for those in peril on the sea,’ sang the farmers and their wives.

Hannes sung the loudest, and this was always so, except of course for the voice of Mrs Joubert, who sung in such high notes she could be heard by the workers in the street. Hannes liked to hold the hymnbook because it had been held by his father, and by his father’s father before him. On completion of the hymn – sung to perfection – Hannes closed the book, his head beginning to throb as it sometimes did, and he stared at the cover like he had not done so before:

Children skipped across a field of grass, hand in hand. The widest smiles Hannes had every seen. His fingers stroked the leather again, the embossed surface burned to his touch now, children running faster and faster still, grass rolling into splinters, and barbed wire tumbling in screams of flashing police trucks.

‘Hannes, please be seated, child,’ said Manager Joubert.

‘Sit brother,’ said the farmer in the pew behind.

‘Children,’ cried Hannes in hereditary vitiation, ‘I’m killing children at the end of the N1.’

Hannes woke early in the dark, the air cold, sharp like a blade of precision. He put on his oldest blue uniform, dusting at the dust, brass buttons fastened in a line down his belly, cap centred, and brass star in the very front. He sat on his chair of matches rubbing his matchbox wall, reaching down he grabbed a handful of matches from the matchbox-landscape floor, and he lit a match.

#

Manger Joubert stumbled outside, having been in bed. From the street and from the petrol station everything was red. On the rise outside, the Great Monster rose in vertiginous fireworks, shaking black wings crossed the sky, tails spreading below a bending neck, so far beyond inchoate intimacy, fading into the moon, horns of smoke spinning against the rising sun. And thousands of crows scattered – passing through – like fleeing children. Jannie, Pieter and Coenie ran up the rise toward the flames. They paused, the windmill groaning as it fell, the reservoir cracking, splitting light into a waterfall of trillions and trillions of golden fishes gasping for air along the N1.

Contributor

Vernon R. L. Head

Vernon R.L Head is a South African poet with an MA in Creative Writing (UCT), a bestselling novelist and internationally acclaimed architect. His first book The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World, was long-listed for the 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton Literature Prize. His first novel, A Tree for the Birds, was long-listed for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and short-listed for the National Institute of Humanities & Social Sciences 2020 Fiction Prize. His poetry has been long-listed for the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Prize in 2014, 2017, and again in 2019.

Acknowledgments

The banner image is based on Japanese-born artist Ryo Shimizu’s Matchstick Drawing (2009).

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