Hennessy First Fiction Prize winner 2016: Some Strange Moon

Hennessy New Irish Writing: A climb into a mountainous South African landscape triggers memories and questions for a father and daughter. But why are there so many butterflies, and where are they going?

 

He shows her each item before packing them away: tent poles, sheeting, harness, polythene rope in neat loops. Sachets of dried pasta, potatoes, meat. Salt and pepper sealed in old film canisters. Water.

“That’s the mistake most people make,” he says. “We find them so dehydrated they need a drip. Or ill from drinking ground water.”

She nods to show she is listening. He lifts the smaller of the packed bags on to her shoulders.

“Okay?” he asks.

“Okay,” she says. The straps are tight across her hips, but he pulls them tighter.

In the half-dark the streets yawn empty. The skies are just pinking at the eastern edge. They pass cracked kerbs and patchy verges, the grass dusted with fumes. A traffic light on its side at the intersection, the victim of a late-night encounter, clicks red to green. Glass glitters on the road around it.

He hums while he drives.

The girl notices the first of them at the highway on-ramp in the building district, where in a few hours out-of-work plumbers, painters and carpenters will sit under the hot sun with their placards. Just a movement of white. Unfocused.

She points, and he looks. Two, three black-fringed butterflies dancing at dawn. They turn out on to the dam road that runs through the soft-backed hills with their aloes and fever trees.

Four, five, two dozen. She presses her face to the window. They are thickening, the closer to the mountains they come.

“What do you think?”

“A thousand? Two thousand? Maybe more.”

The girl counts wordlessly, her lips moving. The outskirts of the city fold up and flatten into farmland, and then long grasses, man-high. At the horizon the flat-topped range stands, pressing out the sky. The butterflies continue.

They park at the end of a dirt road and he helps her shoulder the backpack. It is a short trail through the veld to the range proper, where the scrub grasses and acacias abruptly give way to rock, red and alien, stretching out along the spine of the range in a bare expanse. Early-morning light runs up against the shallow outcrops, catching on the crenellated rock and casting long shadows. The butterflies stream around them and onwards.

The girl pivots slowly on the spot – east, north, west, south, east again – assessing it all. He watches her face. He wonders if she is thinking what he thought on first sight, that it is like the surface of some strange moon.

“Old, old place,” he says. “Two billion years, more. One of the oldest ranges in the world.”

They walk, and the day warms. A little way in, the rock begins to cleave apart in deep ravines. Kloofs, he tells her, and she tastes the unfamiliar word. They all run in the same direction, he explains. West to east. The girl watches the ground as she walks. Tiny, fleshy-leafed plants are wedged into the cracks, and here and there an aloe sits fat and packed like a moon cabbage. Under a lone thorn tree he unpacks biltong, crackers, apples. She ignores the meat but eats the apple in neat, even bites, until only the core is left in her palm. She looks at him questioningly. He fetches a plastic bag from the depths of the backpack, and she drops it carefully in. They sit and sip water and watch the butterflies.

“Where are they going?”

He shrugs. “I’ve never seen this before.”

“I thought you knew all this stuff.”

So had he. In 10 years on the berg, first for his studies and later his escape, there has been nothing of this nature. But then he comes alone and does not talk with the few fellow hikers that cross his path. Mainly white kids with climbing belays clipped in bunches to their neon packs. He confuses them: a solitary figure, a black man hiking. Sometimes they stop him, asking for his permit. Sorry, Prof, they say afterwards, deferential. But always that same tone when they first address him.

They adjust their packs and walk again, into the slipstream of paper-white wings. The heat rises. He has often seen rock dassies, eagles, even a tortoise, but today there is nothing but the butterflies.

The girl stoops to pick up a piece of rock. Close up it is not a single rock but a clump of crystalline grains, pale, no larger than mealie kernels, packed tightly together with the red earth. Where her thumb presses against it, a few grains fall away.

“Dolomite,” he says. “It’s not actually rock; it’s mineral. That slightly pink colour, that’s manganese. This was once a coral reef. All of this a warm, shallow sea.”

They look around, across the pitted lunar expanse. The sun is high and the cicadas string the air tight. And all about the endless flow of the butterflies: eastward, eastward, ever eastward.

“Must be millions.”

“Yes. Must be.”

They cannot talk about them now. There are too many, too purposeful. They are the material of this day, the stuff from which it is sown.

When they reach the lip of the kloof he unclips her backpack and holds out the harness for her to step into. On the steeper drops he sets up the rope so that it is there to catch her if she falls. He watches her fingers and feet as they feel their way down the rock face. On the floor of the kloof there are trees, shading a tumble of rocks. Quartzite, grey and massive and flat-planed; between them a quick-moving river promising coolness. He picks his way across the rocks, the girl in his wake, to the edge where one is half-sunk in the water like a submerged hippo calf.

“Is it okay? To drink?”

“It’s okay.”

She scuffles on to her stomach and drops a hand into the current. Laughs. He feels a twinge at that laugh, the first he can remember since her arrival. She must feel it too, because she puts her face against the water, letting it run over her lips and bubble into her nostrils until she pulls back, spluttering. She had laughed a lot as a child, he remembers.

They scramble out the far side without any need for the harness. He is panting when they gain the final stretch. Butterflies in the heights again, gliding onwards. Moving so that the man and the girl are like rocks in a weightless river.

“Millions and millions and billions,” she says in a breathy sing-song.

They leave the cool of the kloof behind, striking out across the escarpment and its twisted rocks.

“Hear that?”

She tilts her head, mirroring him.

“There. That’s a baboon.”

The faint barking reaches them from the far side of the kloof. He barks back and she lifts her eyebrows, her face under the sun hat wary. Suddenly not quite sure who he is.

The meanness of those cramped, grey streets, under a grey sky. The animals behind Plexiglas, in their zoos. That is all she has known. How to tell her: that is not your place. This is.

The sky darkens at noon. The sun-scarred rock shifts, the cicadas fall silent beneath the massing clouds, and still the butterflies move past in their thousands, like scraps of torn letters scattered to the breeze. Like some echo of the coral sea that once flowed here.

He stops in a cleared section of the trail overhung by a thorn tree.

“Here,” he says.

The girl blinks up at the higher ridge, where a cave shows black against the sun-bleached rock.

What does one tell a 13-year-old about death? They had stood awkwardly next to one another all through the service in the damp of the Croydon chapel, not touching, yet when it was done and they were back in the murmured silence of the Aldens’ front room it had been him she had drawn aside and asked: what happens after?

Too complicated, then, in that place, to share his own views. A father she never sees. So he had settled for Anna’s – or those of her people.

“You go to a better place,” he had said. And she had stood watching him intently for a few long minutes as though there were more, and when there was not she had turned and walked deliberately up the stairs and closed her bedroom door. Six days later he had taken her away from even that small shelter.

He unshoulders his pack and helps her do the same, standing them against the trunk of the thorn tree. The track through the scrub and bush to the rock face is just discernible, kept worn by the passage of buck and baboon.

Beneath the cave he shows her how to spy the handholds, the places the rock will hold her. It is not high, and he climbs behind, one hand cupped at her ankle as she feels her way upwards to the shelf of rock that forms the floor of the cave. From the cool of its mouth there is a view back along the ridge, and they sit, legs over the edge, in silence. The butterflies drift on their unseen current. Then he stirs himself.

“Look around for some, like this.”

He shows her a flat-bottomed rock.

The Anna he had known had wanted to be cremated, but her family had insisted otherwise. So in the stead of ashes he lays down a bone comb they had bought in Hout Bay the summer she was carrying the girl. It had been sitting atop a small dresser in Anna’s room in her parents’ house in London. He hadn’t asked the Aldens for it; it had simply come to rest in his pocket.

The girl watches solemnly as he stacks rocks into a stone cairn around her mother’s comb. He gives her the last one, and she places it carefully at the apex. Her face a small frown of concentration.

From the distance of that summer none of this imaginable. His mother had tried to warn him. Her people are not our people, she had said. He had not listened. Now he understands better what his mother meant: it is a matter not of race or nationality but of allegiance. Of where you run to when you are lost.

All those white faces at Anna’s service. Just he and his coffee-skinned daughter – near-strangers and yet marked out as belonging to one another. He could feel them eyeing him, Anna’s African professor of stones, the one she left behind. (“Do they have real universities over there?” he had overhead one frail-boned neighbour asking another earnestly.) They had wanted to keep the girl, the Aldens. But he had already lost too much.

“Did she come here?”

“Your mother? Yes.”

“With you?”

“With me.”

He descends first, reaching back up to help her down. The light is closing in upon itself, the land losing its colour. In silence they assemble the tent, the girl reading his intentions in no more than a look, a tap on a pole, a tilt of his chin. When it is done they stand companionably before it for a moment.

Then he sets up a gas stove next to the tent, and heats dried meat and potatoes into a thick stew.

He sits on a flat rock (dolerite, striped with chert) and smiles at her. She stares into her bowl.

“When are we going home?”

“Tomorrow.”

“No, home home.”

He stares out into the purpling dark, the faint shadows of the butterfly host, until the question is quietly folded away between them. On her arrival form she had written Anele Alden, not Anele Mosiane.

When night comes in earnest he shows her how to pack the food away and hang it out of reach of the baboons. She squints into the dark.

“Will we see them?”

“Probably not.”

She shuffles about in the tent while he waits outside, pulling on her nightclothes. Then he crawls in and they lie in the dark. He looks up at the canvas roof and thinks he can see through it, to the moving shadows beyond, the butterflies still driving eastward toward the coming dawn.

Some time in the night the rains fall, fierce and quick. The noise must have woken her, too, but she is a still mass in her sleeping bag. He listens to the drumming and breathes the sharp smell of the mineral earth, warmed dust rising damply, and thinks: petrichor. The smell of the earth after the rain. A word he has come to love, out here in the arms of these mountains. That there is a name for this experience, that is something.

In the morning, the carcasses of butterflies are strewn about the land. Rainstruck. He sits at the mouth of the tent as though to shield her from it, until she wakes and there is nothing more to be done.

She picks one up and examines it.

“Poor things,” he says.

She looks at him, cold. “But they’ve gone to a better place, haven’t they?”

She lets the butterfly corpse fall on to the wet rock dust, a small flutter of wings. Once there was a sea here.

Ríona Judge McCormack has spent eight years working in international development in Ireland, Cambodia and South Africa. She lives in Johannesburg, where she is completing her first novel. This is her first published fiction.

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