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The opening of the title story
Away from the Dead
Sample PassageRumours spread among the workers that the farm had been sold. The old man, dead two weeks previously, had left the farm to his children; children who lived in cities overseas; who had no interest in farming. In that respect, the workers comforted each other, the sale of the farm was a good thing. For what good could have come from it being run by those who did not know how? Yet, behind the words of reassurance, they worried privately. Would they keep their current wages? How much would change? And most importantly, would the new owners keep them all on?
Before long the answer came. None would remain. Farming was an expensive and unreliable business. The new owners, property developers, explained in letters addressed to each individual worker that money could no longer be made from farming. Climate change, the expense of irrigation, regulations with regard to pesticides, all of these made farming too much of a liability. Money, the developers asserted, came from having something people wanted to buy. Therefore they had chosen to build luxury holiday chalets, import game for hunting, and build a nine-hole golf course, marketed at an overseas clientele. This, of course, meant that there would no longer be any need for farm workers. The new owners therefore respectfully included severance packages (of a more than compensatory amount), and requested the workers to leave before the end of the month, otherwise legal action would be taken.
Standing outside their small cottages, showing their letters to one another, they read the same words over and over. They did not speak any more. They did not cry. Instead they turned and looked at their cottages, their small gardens and washing lines. Behind their homes, in the distance, they saw the cemetery: grey gravestones neatly spaced, surrounded by a low wall of white. A marker of those they had lost; the old, the young, the stillborn; it had formed the background to their lives. What would happen, they wondered, to the dead? Who would tend to them once the living had left?
Isaac Witbooi stood to one side, away from the others. His grief was his own. His grandparents, parents, siblings, wife and children had all been buried in that earth, leaving him with no one. He carried silently the loneliness of years. Ageing now, perhaps sixty, perhaps more, he had come to look forward with certainty to the day he would join his family in the cemetery. Robbed of that possibility, Isaac Witbooi looked to the future as an empty plain without end. There was no horizon; only stretching out, flat and dim, the years to come.
In the week that followed, Isaac went to neighbouring farms, asking for jobs from people he had known for years. He did not beg or plead, nor did he remind them of the past when he had given advice or the sweat of his brow in times of need. Instead, he anticipated their words, knowing full well what they would say: ‘You were always a good worker, but you’re an old man now. What can we give you to do?’
As the end of the month neared, Isaac packed his belongings into a brown cardboard suitcase which had belonged to his wife. Over the years of disuse its fastening had rusted so that he had to tie a length of rope around it in order to keep it closed. The few items inside – clothes, razor, Bible, mug, plates and cutlery – rattled against each other as he lifted it. Glancing around the small cottage to see if he had everything, Isaac then stepped outside and closed the door behind him, before removing the key from the lock and pushing it under the door as they had been asked to do.
Among the last to leave, Isaac said goodbye to nobody. Those who remained stayed only out of a reckless hope that the end of the month would never come, or if it did that something miraculous would happen to prevent their eviction. Unwilling to see the desperate looks on their faces, Isaac said nothing, feeling only their eyes on him from behind the windows of their cottages as he passed by. He felt no remorse at parting from these people he had known since their births, for it was, after all, not them that he was abandoning. Instead it was the cemetery that he was leaving, and with it all the years of his life, and those of his parents’ and his grandparents’ lives too. They were years he could not put a number to, nothing exact, because each year held so much of every other. Whether a hundred, or whether less or more, those years made up his past, and with every step he took, the suitcase banging against his thigh, it was as though a moment of that past was beaten out of him.
All morning he walked, passing families he recognised who had made camp on the side of the road.
‘Sit, have a rest, Oupa,’ they greeted him, sipping tea boiled over small fires. Isaac shook his head, pressed on.
‘What’s the rush?’ they called after him. ‘There’s no work that way! You’re walking to nothing!’
By the time he approached his destination, a large service station with a restaurant and café, his ears were ringing with fatigue. He felt dizzy – from the walk, from thirst, from age, and from the weight of the suitcase, heavy and awkward at his side. Dizziness settled in his throat as he approached the intersection beside the service station. Already the roadside was crowded with workers who had left the farm a day, a week before. They greeted him with wariness, silently making a space for him beside them. As he put down his suitcase, sitting upon it like a chair, they asked whom he had seen, what news he had. But Isaac had nothing to share, and soon they tired of him, returning to standing with their hands in their pockets, frowning up and down the intersection, waiting for something that wouldn’t come.
From where he sat, Isaac looked back towards the large area taken up by the service station. Among the uniform-clad petrol attendants he recognised Randall, a young man he had taken under his wing a few years previously, teaching him all he knew about farming and maintenance of vines. Further away, near the doorway to the toilets, Isaac could make out Randall’s wife and sister carrying mops and buckets. They, too, were in the service station’s uniform; bright colours covering them from head to toe. Keeping their faces low, their eyes on the ground, neither Randall nor the women allowed themselves to look up towards where their friends and family sat beside the road, their belongings scattered around them. Even from a distance, Isaac understood by their expressions the guilt they felt for their good fortune. He turned around, facing the road so that his shame need not become theirs.
For five days Isaac remained, as men younger than himself were picked up on the backs of farm bakkies, either for jobs or simply hitching rides to anywhere else. By the afternoon of the third day he no longer joined the other men as they crowded around the windows of stopping cars, murmuring qualifications. The drivers took in his old and lined face, his trembling hands and watery eyes and shook their heads. They had no work for him. ‘You should go home,’ they said. ‘You are too old to be hired. It is time for you to rest, to have your children take care of you.’ Isaac stepped back from the rolled-down car windows, allowing others to take his place in the crowd.
© Karen Jennings - The full story has been published in Karen's latest short story collection Away from the Dead. You can buy this book in print or e-format from the top of this page.
Number of pages: 107
Find out more about the author
What was said about Away from the Dead‘Jennings' searing collection, which so poetically depicts life at all levels of South African Society.’
‘Stories such as Jennings' offer a powerful tribute to the complexity of lives inhabiting this remarkable globe.’ - Alice Robinson in Arena Magazine, Australia
‘Within a few sentences Jennings sets the scene and her characterisation is deft and feels authentic. Jennings is seriously talented and I would definitely read her next book.’ - Novel Escapes
‘Karen Jennings’ short stories are like searchlight beams’ & ‘Jennings has the good storyteller’s intuitive knack of saying a great deal in a very few words’ & ‘a collection of beautifully crafted and poignant stories that can stand side by side with the very best.’ - David Gardiner on facebook
‘In each story, the characters are in three dimensions and live on long after the story is finished.’ - Emma Lee's Blog
‘The characters are vivid and easily recognizable. The reader connects immediately and is engaged throughout.’ - Henry Tobias on Amazon
‘Jennings’ writing is evocative, bringing everyday existence in Africa alive with her sharp descriptions and intriguing characters.
‘The sadness that Africa, and South Africa especially, is still such an unequal society haunts every page but the lack of self-pity is admirable. This is a fine short story collection that shows a maturity belying the author’s relatively tender years.’ - Shirley Whiteside on Book Oxygen
‘Karen is poignant. She seizes on the individual, and casts them alone, bringing to bear, the 'long road' that is life.’ - The Star, Kenya
‘Throughout Away from the Dead Jennings sensitively lifts the veil shrouding the concept of death.’ - Book Bites on Books Live
‘This collection of short stories stands out not only because of Jennings’s rich and poignant writing, but also for how she portrayed the chilling realities of those left behind as death lingers and finds its place within us.’ - Kholofelo Maenetsha on Books Live