The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 18, No. 4

Small Holding

by Dara Kell

As a special online supplement to the Winter 2014/2015 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2014 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.

And there it was—the cross. One blue line meant no baby. A blue line crossed with another: she was with child. Blood rushed to her eyes. She felt dizzy and hot. She heard a noise outside the bathroom, something falling, and thought it was her husband home early. But it was only a window banging. It seemed wrong to be finding out this way, in secret, as though she were a wicked teenager, not a woman in a Godly marriage. Estelle thought of herself as essentially wicked; she had wrestled with wickedness all her life. As a little girl she had rubbed hot chili on her brother's lips while he was sleeping, and her crimes had not stopped there. Now she had deceived her husband by buying the test behind his back. Why make things so tricky? And yet a strange sense of calm washed over her, and she smiled, looking up at the unfinished concrete wall as though she could already see right through to the end.
     She wrapped the plastic wand in tissues and buried it in her cardigan pocket, amidst the small stones and dead flowers her boys had given her. Head bowed, she walked along the dark hallways, left, right, left and right again, her ponytail swinging like a schoolgirl's. She was resolute but could not pin down what, exactly, she had resolved. The boys did not notice her—they were twirling on the carpet, building Lego mansions. She went out the back door into the thicket of sweet, sticky pine trees that opened to the river flowing strong and true all the way to the icy Atlantic Ocean. The river spoke infinite languages, but today it whispered things unknowable. She threw the wand into the water and watched it—pretty somehow—as it shed the tissues and floated away.
     They would have to add another bedroom. Ten years ago, they had built the house from scratch. Riaan was alive in a different way back then; building the house was his chance to prove himself to her. At night they had exuberant, exhausted sex. She wore flowing tie-dyed dresses and brought juice and sandwiches to black men in blue overalls clumped around cement mixers. The house had grown haphazardly since then and still smelled of cement. There was always more work to be done. Holes gaped into darkness.
     She searched her soul for traces of joy. There were none, truly, and this recognition filled her with despair. The child would know, somehow—its brows forever knitted with the recognition that its mother did not want it. They had only just started trying for a girl. But how could she have conceived on the first attempt, at her age? She thought of the women from church who'd had five sons trying. They would not be running orphanages or going on missions to Malawi. They would not be finishing their teaching degrees or learning to play the blues.
     Riaan was across the river and far away, working with his crew. His team had dwindled to just five men—with democracy came new labor laws, and with new labor laws came soaring wages. He would be happy with another boy, another set of hands. Buying the farm had been his idea. For years he had worked nights managing the Waikiki Restaurant, first to pay off his student loans and then to save enough for the down payment. Before the boys were born, Estelle would meet him after his shifts, and over coconut pie and lime milkshakes they plotted out their lives: the house, the servants' quarters, the vegetable garden, the cornfield. It wasn't technically a farm, though she'd always thought of it as one. The correct real estate term was "small holding." The hope was that eventually, once the city had bled into the countryside, they might sell it to developers for a profit.
     Estelle looked across the river and pictured Riaan, chainsaw in hand, sunburned and sweating, chopping down Port Jackson trees. Imported from Australia to stabilize the sands of the Cape Flats, the aliens were taking over, depleting the water table and fooling everyone with their pretty yellow blossoms. The young ecologist who had come to assess the damage handed them a glossy government pamphlet with diagrams and deadlines and said, in a heavy Afrikaans accent, rolling his rs dramatically, "Mr. and Mrs. Swanepoel, I'm sorry, the situation is rrrreally not good. It's rrrreally, rrrrrrreally not good." Estelle had felt an urge to comfort him, as though it were his farm that needed saving.
     That very afternoon, it began. Riaan led a team of ten men who worked away with loppers, chainsaws, and buckets of chemicals. It hadn't stopped since.

Riaan sat slumped at the kitchen table, covered in yellow pollen dust. He seemed more tired than usual, Estelle thought, but that was to be expected. On top of his part-time teaching post at the Christian Academy, he had picked up weekend managerial shifts at the Waikiki again. The rusks and koeksisters she made fetched a pittance at the home-industry shops. Their savings were dwindling. They could barely afford the children's school fees, let alone those for the teaching degree at which she had been chipping away, module by exorbitant module, for almost six years.
     Upon hearing of their plight, their minister, Paul, had said, "God loves an impossible situation." It did feel impossible sometimes—along with the Port Jacksons, they bore the growing sense that the country was becoming a place in which they no longer had a place. Some of their friends were leaving for friendlier shores: for Montreal, Brisbane, Galax. Places with zip codes instead of postal codes. Places where it snowed. Small price to pay, their emigrating friends had said. The new South Africa is no environment in which to raise children.
     Riaan refused to surrender so easily. Tonight, however, he seemed defeated. She would wait until he was in brighter spirits to share the good news. They all held hands, and Riaan said grace. Estelle kept her eyes open and watched him. She admired how his eyebrows came together when he emphasized certain phrases. He started each sentence with, "Father God." He prayed for strength and for hope, which were the anchors of the soul. Riaan's optimism had first drawn her to him. He played guitar in the church band. Thinking him handsome, Estelle had volunteered to play keyboard. She loved the instant-mix community that came with church life, the fellowship with other young mothers, some of whom had piercings and tattoos. The verkrampte Dutch Reformed Church of their parents' generation had dissolved, and in its place had risen a new brand of Christianity better suited to modern times.
     With adversity, Riaan's faith had grown stronger, while hers wavered. The tattooed young mothers she had thought were her friends were showing themselves to be more interested in rising up the ranks of church ministry than in building a new society. Increasingly Estelle took what she found useful, from sermons and from Bible study, and cast the rest aside.
     When grace was done, ten-year-old Johan said, "Praise God," which was meant to impress his father, and Luke—eight—huffed and shoved peas into his mouth, fanning Estelle's fears that the boy had inherited a bit of her depravity. After dinner, Riaan did what he did every night: put all the leftover morsels into separate, carefully labeled Tupperware containers. To the boys' inevitable complaints about the boiled potatoes and microwaved carrots that reappeared in their school lunches, their father would say, "Starving children in Africa." The children would roll their eyes and reply, "Dad, we are in Africa," and his response would be: "Well, you don't want to starve then, do you?" And to those terrific, pumping eyebrows and wide, salesman's smile, they knew to say no more.

They awoke to a commotion in the kitchen. Luke cried out, "Ma, the cat's laying kittens!" Everyone rushed over to see. She was a long-haired, gray beauty of a cat. For weeks she had been walking with a sideways waddle, and Estelle had known to put a cardboard box and a blanket next to the stove. Now, the cat lay inside the box, licking four slimy newborns. Estelle imagined the little embryo inside her own belly reaching out in turn—fellow aliens, brainless and helpless. The heart starts beating on the eighteenth day; she'd heard this in church once. The child inside her seemed to radiate heat outward, seemed to give itself away.
     Riaan ate his breakfast in silence. Estelle could detect from his deliberate movements—the way he stirred his coffee, clanging the spoon against the cup, the swift wiping of toast crumbs off the tablecloth—a simmering anger. He disliked cats—they were extra mouths to feed, snake bait, ill suited to farm life. Dogs were useful, dogs were security. Riaan could be boyish and goofy, with his wide clown smile, gleefully jumping on the trampoline with his sons, racing and wrestling with the Dobermans, strumming Bob Dylan tunes on the guitar after supper; in these moments she loved him best. But now and then he turned cold and distant, and after ten years of marriage she had learned to predict his moods. She looked at him and imagined a bank of clouds racing toward him. Soon he would be enveloped in a dark electrical storm, and they would all know to stay away from him for a day or two.
     That night, after the children had gone to bed, Riaan said, "You do realize we can't keep them."
     Estelle had known this was coming, but now it seemed overly harsh, irrational, an early lesson that life is unfair, better get used to it.
     She sat on the edge of the bed and looked through the window at the tiny cabin where Warren, their farmhand and driver, lived with his wife, Evelyn, their domestic worker. A light was still on, and she imagined the two of them sitting, warmly, together inside. Warren and Evelyn's children were grown and living better than their parents ever would. In a way, she envied the born-frees—envied, even, the color of their skin.
     She felt tiny pricks in her womb. Something was attaching itself to something else. Something was growing. She gazed up at the dark blue Helderberg Mountains, which seemed to speak to her sometimes, to tell her what to do. But tonight they were silent. She decided to tell Riaan about the baby, about the test, and then heard the soft whistle of his snoring. He had fallen asleep without meaning to, which was probably for the best. She would wait a week, maybe two. She'd had an early miscarriage once before, between Johan and Luke. She was bedridden for days. Riaan had comforted her.
     In the morning she told the boys, "We can't keep them." Luke sobbed into his cereal but knew better than to argue. A few weeks prior Riaan had spanked the boy with his belt instead of his hand. When Estelle tried to stop him, Riaan quoted Proverbs and pushed her away.
     The boys made flyers: FREE KITTENS FOR A GOOD HOME! in big yellow, red, and green letters, decorated with stars and rainbow crayon. The flyers went up at school, at church, at the Tyger Valley Shopping Center.
     The kittens seemed to double in size by the day. Their eyes focused on objects, and their paws tugged at everything around them. The boys came home from school and played with the kittens for hours. Johan sketched them with long, careful pencil lines. Luke pulled their tails and tied little purple bows around their necks. When they strayed from their mother, the Dobermans scooped them into gentle jaws and brought them back.
     Estelle hid in the bedroom and wept under the covers. Everything she had planned for was gone. Nothing made sense. She sobbed, then felt guilty for sobbing, then fell into sleep, not for rest but relief.
     A week went by, and no one called for the kittens.

Estelle mixed the sticky rusk dough with her hands, as her grandmother had taught her to do. She found small pleasure in the squelching together of buttermilk and sugar and flour, licking the mixture off her fingers, knowing it might make her sick. The sun crept behind the gathering clouds, blotting out the sky, then spilled over the tops of the mountains and rushed down the slopes into the valley below. She heard the boys singing, The pot is boiling over, the pot is boiling over. In about an hour the farm would be humid and coated with a blinding white haze.
     She ate a plate of wilted spinach and took her prenatal pills, hoping to make it up to the baby after her slide into evil thoughts. Bubbles filled her belly. It was too early for much to be there, but she could feel it all the same: her body was working hard at making life. She put walnuts into her mouth mechanically.
     She set the dried and cooled rusks into cellophane packets and tied them up with curly ribbons. She heard a scream from outside and thought nothing of it—probably the boys playing WrestleMania. But Johan and Luke burst into the kitchen, hopping and overexcited. A snake had taken one of the kittens. There was a wet spot on Luke's crotch, urine dripping down his legs.
     Estelle said, "You stay inside, you hear me? Don't even think about moving."
     "OK, Ma."
     She touched both boys on the head to make sure they were really there, safe from harm, then ran to the sliding door and closed it.
     Outside, a cobra was curled around the edge of the sandpit with the last-born kitten, the runt, in its wide-open fangs. Its torso was thick as a child's head. Estelle opened the door a few inches and screamed for Warren to come with his spade, but there was no answer, just the steady whisper of wind through the pine needles. She called for Evelyn, out of earshot in the cornfield. For Riaan, on the far edge of the property with the dogs. She slid the door shut and locked it.
     She ran to the bedroom, where Riaan kept a loaded gun in the safe. She had opposed his buying it, but now she was grateful. She typed in the combination and took the gun out, holding it with both hands. It was heavier than she remembered. Once, Riaan had insisted she fire it at an empty beer can. "Just in case," he had said. The shock of recoil made her cry, and the acrid smell of gunpowder never left her.
     The gun hung at her side like a dirty rag. In the dark hallway she slipped—her foot catching on her long skirt—and quickly steadied herself. The break in rhythm calmed her.
     "Stay in the corner, you two," she said to the boys.
     They backed away as she approached the sliding door, stepped through, and closed it behind her. A kitten-shaped mass was inching along the length of the snake, passing from its throat toward its belly. Estelle stood with her feet wide apart and aimed, left eye squinted closed, right eye lining up the sight. The gun blurred in the foreground as the snake rose up in glistening clarity, brown scales shimmering as though wet. For a moment, she admired it. Then a gagging nausea welled in her. She swallowed hard and pressed the trigger, which resisted her at first. Was it broken? Had she forgotten how? She pressed harder, and the blast threw her back, its cold, explosive pop searing into her and echoing off the mountains. She wondered if Riaan had heard.
     She wailed out, just once, then composed herself and looked: she had missed. The snake thrashed like a lasso, its hood now opened wide in attack mode. The children's voices were muffled behind the sliding door: "Ma! Watch out, Ma!"
     Again she aimed. Her hands were shaking, and she breathed deeply. The snake's hazel eyes locked in on hers. The kitten was halfway down. She fired. Chunks of bloodied white fur splattered against the sides of the sandpit.
     Estelle held the gun high above her head, as though asking God to pluck it from her grasp. She looked back at her boys—they were shadow humans: misty circles, palms and noses pressed flat against the thick glass. She opened the door, and they came to her. Luke was terrified and bawling. Johan scowled; he resembled his father in these moments, with a little cartoon storm cloud over his furrowed brow.
     Estelle found a spade in the toolshed and scraped up the carcasses, spooning the fleshy pieces into a canvas rice bag. They walked to the river, where Johan dug a hole, and they buried the whole mess, pushing down the bulging middle where the kitten was still stuck.
     "Do you want to pray, Johan?" she asked.
     "Father God, please let the snake and the kitten be friends in heaven."

The afternoon was sunny but the children played inside, comforting the remaining kittens. When Estelle hung the washing, she wore gumboots instead of her usual sandals, stomping hard to ward off more snakes. She felt foolish and brittle. The green lawn around their house, which buffered them from the wilderness beyond, had been violated. Her prayers now took the form of pleas cast to the heavens, to Time, voicing her deepest desires—a reflex from the days when she was still, truly, saved. Her abdomen was on fire, as if something inside were gurgling or spitting. She put her hand on it. The baby inside her was boiling.

Estelle handed Riaan his coffee. The boys were in bed, the house silent. She turned back to finish washing the dishes.
     Over her shoulder she said, "You'll be happy to know that a cobra took one of the kittens today."
     "What? I can't hear you."
     She turned off the water and faced him, her hands still wet and soapy.
     "I said, you'll be happy to know that a cobra took one of the kittens today. One down, three to go."
     "How do you know it was a cobra?"
     "It was in the sandpit."
     "Calm down. I shot it. We buried it by the—"
     "Wait, you shot a cobra?"
     "Ja. Good thing we had the gun, after all."
     Riaan put his elbows on the table and drew his fingertips together to make a steeple, set his lips to the peak. Estelle toweled her hands, watching him, watching the storm clouds gather. His primary reason for moving here was to ensure the safety of his family, to get away from the city, where their neighbors were getting burgled and raped and hijacked.
     "Why didn't you call my cell? I would've come home."
     She folded her arms. A glimmer of defiance shot through her eyes.
     "This is not a joke, Estelle. Cobras strike"—he clicked his fingers: snap—"just like that."
     She sat next to him. Her stomach churned: she probably had been within striking distance.
     He grabbed her shoulder and pressed his thumb into her collarbone, the blood rushing away and the skin turning white. He didn't know his own strength.
     "Did you think about that, huh?"
     She fluttered her eyelids and arched her neck from him, turned her cheek.
     He shook her once, as if wresting her from a deep sleep, then drew her into a tight embrace. "You call me immediately next time, see?" He breathed into her neck and rubbed her back. "I love you."
     She pulled away to finish the last of the dishes, crying silently—but she was used to that now. Directly above the sink was a half-open window that looked out onto the pine trees. It had been her idea to put the window there, to complement the mundane task with a view. She heard the distant croaking of frogs from the river. The sound comforted her. She watched Evelyn hobble to the outhouse in the waning light, her bones stiffened by arthritis. Estelle had nagged Riaan to build a proper toilet for the staff, but he hadn't gotten around to it yet. The outhouse—a crude long-drop—was what they had all used for years before the main house got a toilet. Back then, she had dreaded going out there, especially in the middle of the night—the cold toilet seat, the smell of shit and chemicals rushing up, the darkness down below, and the spiders.

That night, she dreamed she was hungry and walked into the kitchen. The cobra lay coiled by the stove, a litter of tiny snakes at its side. She patted the mother's flaring hood, picked up one of the babies, chewed, swallowed, picked up another, then another, chewed and swallowed, again and again. Baby snakes squirmed in Estelle's stomach, swimming around her fetus. She woke to the swirling concrete ceiling, then ran to the bathroom and threw up.
     Predawn she stirred again—a rustling somewhere—and walked into the kitchen. Riaan crouched by the stove. She held her breath and watched him. He picked up a sleeping kitten and put it in a rice bag. Then another. Then another. Three groggy kittens mewling and kneading the bag from within so that it resembled some new hideous creature. He walked out of the kitchen with the bag close to his body.
     Riaan took the path to the river. First light had arrived, bringing bird chatter so glorious that her heart soared on cue. Stars were fading into an indigo sky streaked with pink clouds. It would be a hot day.
     She tracked him silently, treading softly on the carpet of pine needles. Through the blossoms of a Port Jackson, she watched him. At the river's sandy edge, where stones marked the cobra's grave, he knelt and put the stones into the bag one by one, tied the open end, stood, then stiffened, stopped—something had given him pause. He lifted his nose to the air. Estelle wondered if he could smell her. The river was barely moving; it rippled and swirled near the banks. Riaan flung the bag, shattering the reflected sky into shards and waves. The bag billowed up, filled with water, sank.

At breakfast he told the boys that someone had called for the kittens, that they had found a good home. Johan seemed unfazed. Luke's lip trembled. Estelle felt the sting of tears, a rage seething within. It wasn't the kittens, it wasn't the snake, it wasn't the Port Jacksons or the staff toilet or the holes in the house—it was everything and nothing. It was the wicked impulse to leave them all, to return to Cape Town, to the life she had barely started before meeting her husband.
     Riaan was giving the boys a speech about gun safety. Estelle excused herself and stood, gripping the edge of the table with both hands as though she were already heavily pregnant.
     She walked to the river and listened: it was moving swiftly now—every part of it rushing along, little eddies marking submerged objects. Midges flew aimlessly above. She threw a small branch into the current just to watch it flow away. What was the river saying? Swift, swift, swift. Move, move, move. Danger, danger, danger—but perhaps that was only her own mind.
     Suddenly she knew what to do. And as soon as she knew, it was as though blood surged through her once more, with all the vitality of the river. She felt alive, filled with hope. She would finish her teaching degree. She would convince Riaan to put a mortgage on the farm, and with the money the four of them would take that mission trip to Malawi. Maybe she would even learn to play the blues.
     Malawi. The word was delicious. She had never traveled outside her country. The boys were finally old enough, and it would be good for them all to get away from the farm, let the poison work its magic on the Port Jacksons. In the distance, the Helderberg Mountains, so gray in the early morning light, seemed to shimmer in approval.
     She packed up the sticky koeksisters and packets of rusks and asked Warren to drive her into town. She wore a paisley scarf wrapped around her hair and large sunglasses. Not one thought went through her mind: it was as if all the noise of her days—the river, the birdsong, the kittens' cries, the rustling corn, the children's screams, the gunshots—had drowned everything else out. She dropped off her goods at the shop and exchanged a few pleasantries with the chubby, polyester-clad owner, then embarked on one last errand.
     The main road was full of people. Spying a family she knew from Bible study, she bade Warren to circle the block until they were gone. Her earlier certainty was melting away as two paths turned over in her mind. Children were everywhere: babies in prams, toddlers running from their laughing parents. She closed her eyes.
     At the clinic she was given a termination pill, which she swallowed, hard, resisting the urge to throw up. As Warren drove her home, she leaned back into the cracked vinyl headrest, closed her eyes once more, and prayed—sincerely, for the first time in many years. Father God, forgive me, for I know not what I do.
     She knew exactly what she was doing. In two days' time, she would take the second pill, which would tear away at the lining of her womb and eject the fetus. The experience would be painful. Riaan would comfort her.
     As she gathered the washing, stomping over the long grass without fear, she felt a giddiness bordering on vertigo, an almost childish relief. The word that kept running through her head was reprieve. She had been granted a reprieve. She anticipated the next few years with something akin to lust. She would plan their mission. She would return to her faith.
     She walked to where the river was narrow enough to cross and set the wash basket on the bank, then stepped along the stones, balancing herself with her arms stretched wide. She felt joy, only joy. And she knew that God himself had given her that joy. Surveying the blackened mass of land ahead of her—the charcoal stubs of trees, shiny like the backs of dung beetles—she recalled that she'd expected regret. Perhaps it would come later.

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