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from the November 2021 issue

Snake’s Hill

Slang Hiewel

A young woman learns about a family secret in this short story written and translated by Olivia M. Coetzee.


Listen to Olivia Coetzee read from "Slang Hiewel" in the original Kaaps.


My name is Susan Ruiters. Everyone calls me Sanna after my mom’s mother, Susanna. I was born in the late 1970s to my mother, Gertruida Johanna Ruiters, and my dad . . . Well, that’s why I’m here. I never would have known if JB hadn’t told me about the man in the photograph. Maybe Mom would still be waiting for the right time to tell me.

Mom was born on a farm. Her family worked and lived there with ten other families. It was called Snake’s Hill, and all five of Mom’s children were born there: me, the three Johns, and Gert. John was my mother’s husband’s name, but everyone called him Senior, including us, his children. Three of my brothers were named John. John the first was called Junior, he was the second eldest after me, but he was stillborn, umbilical cord strung around his neck. The second John was named after his two grandfathers, John and Bernard, but we called him JB. And the third John, the youngest, was the only one we called by his name. Gert was named after one of my uncles, and he was the quiet one, always with his head in a book somewhere, nothing like the Johns that were left.

If you stand outside our kitchen door, you can see how big the farm is. You may think that this farmer must take care of the people who work for him, putting us up overlooking his farm. The only thing the farmer takes care of is putting up a buffer between the snakes and his family. That’s why we call it Snake’s Hill. During the summer there are snakes, and during winter there are mud and snakes.


* * *

Mom took her time to die. When I was fifteen the white people’s doctors gave her six years to live and sent her home with painkillers and a note saying she had to report to the oncology department at the state hospital for treatment. Our doctor gave her herbs and showed her how to prepare marijuana to smoke and drink. Mom turned forty that year she got the news. Ten years after her diagnosis I left to find my father and Mom was up, working in her garden, taking care of her house, drinking her herbs, and consuming marijuana. She was too busy taking care of life to worry about death, she would always tell anyone who would listen.

“Your heart, your body, and your mind, that’s what counts,” she always said.

We never owned the land our house was built on, nor did we own the house itself. It was the property of the farmer. Sometimes it looked like he owned us, the way he would push the workers to do their job, or else. How do you own a house on someone else’s land? Mom believed that every person needed to have one thing before they died.

“If there is nothing else, Sanna, you’ll still have a place to go home to. Everyone needs a place to call home.”

Growing up, I had a home, a mother, and brothers who I loved, and memories and a picture of the man I knew as my father, Senior. The winter after Senior died, I would lie on Mom’s bed in the sun, daydreaming about him. The warmth of his voice, the calluses on his fingers when he would wipe the tears rolling down my cheeks after something one of the boys did. The wink he gave me after shoving a handful of sweets in mine, as if to say, “Don’t tell the boys you’re my favorite.” But his face changed over time, or maybe it was my view of him, because the older I got the more I felt the disconnect between me and Senior. The photo in the frame next to Mom’s bed was no longer enough.

“Look, Mom, Senior’s still smiling with us,” I remember saying as I lay on my back with the photo frame in my hand. She was standing in the door watching me, a small smile caught in the corners of her mouth, but there was always something swimming in her eyes that I could never understand.

“But it’s just a photo, my child,” she would say, taking the frame and wiping the glass to remove the fingerprints I left on it. She would then fix the doily on the bedside table and put the photo frame back in its place. It was almost like she was looking to maintain her distance from the man she had married, because she had three of his shadows running around her every day, asking for a bigger piece of bread or complaining about school shoes too small for growing feet. Then she would always leave as the tears formed, reminding me that we needed to peel potatoes. The older I got the more she required me to do chores around the house and help take care of John and Gert.

But the closest thing I had to a father-daughter relationship after Senior died was our pastor. He cared about the families in his flock, scolding when it was necessary, praying when prayer was needed, and preaching when preaching was called for, but most important, he delivered his envelope for our tithes on time every second to last Sunday of the month. He did his work of keeping his flock in line with what the Scriptures said. But I was grateful for him. He begged Mom to allow me to join the choir. When she refused, he forced her hand by telling her that she was sinning by “keeping one of God’s angels out of his choir.” His words, not mine. I was the only one who could sing and wanted to play an instrument. My siblings were out practicing rugby and breaking radios so they could fix them again. But it’s not like our dreams mattered, because we knew we would eventually have to join the farmer’s workforce. The silent law of the land: if you don’t work, you need to leave, and where do you go when there’s only one place you have always known? But when I was at church practicing with the choir or at home singing by myself, it was like I could see the world opening up to me. People always said I took after my father, but I never heard Senior sing—he hardly ever said two words. But I never questioned them.

“This child is born with the devil in him,” Mom always used to say when JB went on a streak of setting fire to any little thing he could get his hands on, toy cars, my dolls, mom’s torn doilies that she put aside to fix when she had the time. JB was two years younger than me.

“Starting fires wherever you go,” she always scolded JB, and when he ignored her, she would turn to me and tell me to stop singing. I couldn’t keep myself from singing, but I tried, practicing every day with the choir to get it all out. But the more I sang, the more I wanted to sing. I just couldn’t understand why Mom was so against it.

“You need to get married, have kids, and take care of them” was a tune the other girls of the neighborhood and I heard on the regular. My brothers and the other boys, of course, were never told find a wife, marry her, have kids, and settle.

But Mom’s wish for me to get married and have kids almost came true. I met Connie a year after I completed high school. Mom threatened me using the pastor’s tricks, telling me that I was sinning against God for not marrying the man he sent me.

“Will you marry me?” was not the question I wanted to hear coming from a man, but that was the expectation when you met a young guy who was “good enough” in your mother’s eyes. He was a mechanic, just like his father and his father’s father. But of course, things between us didn’t last.

The fact that my relationship with Connie ended didn’t stop Mom nagging.

“Sanna, you must take a husband and settle down,” she begged me the same year I decided to go and look for my father. JB was the one to start that fire inside my head. Mom was right, he starts fires everywhere, and as he grew older his words became the matches spreading sparks wherever he went. I laughed at him when he told me that we had different fathers. I thought JB was just being his usual self, getting up to nonsense. But when he saw I didn’t believe him he stomped out of the kitchen into Mom’s room—when she wasn’t home, he could come and go in her room as he pleased. That specific day she had to go to the clinic for a check-up, and usually when she went there, she would leave early in the morning and come back home late in the afternoon. He returned with a little parcel in his hands, threw himself back into the kitchen chair next to me, and said, “See for yourself!” Four rubber bands held the parcel together. I can remember one of the rubber bands snapping as he pulled them off. He placed the photo, the letter, and a red harmonica in front of me, saying, “Read this and tell me if I’m lying.”

While I was inspecting the letter and the photo, he picked up the harmonica. I started reading the letter, written in big cursive letters and addressed to me. JB started coughing after he sucked on the harmonica.

It’s strange how words and images remain fresh in your brain when you go through life-changing moments.

But that’s not all. After JB had his fun with the harmonica, he said with a big sigh,

“I saw him here when Senior was still alive.”

My questions about what JB meant were met with a story: it was the year before Senior died, and after he and Mom told us to go sleep, like they normally did, a visitor arrived, the man in the photograph. JB, being JB, left the bedroom, pretending he was thirsty. And that’s when he saw my father sitting with Mom and Senior.

“He smelled like Aqua Velva and smoke,” JB said. I asked why he had never told me anything about this. He said he never knew until he read the letter and saw the photograph and the red harmonica.

That afternoon when my mother returned from the clinic, she told me the story of my father and his dream of joining a jazz band in Cape Town. She told me how she tried everything to get him to stay with the two of us, but his mind was made up, and she couldn’t stop him. He promised to visit, but he never did. He left her with a few hundred bucks, a newborn baby, and a broken heart.

When Senior moved back in with his parents, six months after my father left, they fell in love. Mom said Senior took me as his own blood and never wanted me to know that I wasn’t his own. And when Senior died, she decided she would tell me the whole story when I was ready and able to understand her side of it.

“It looks like the Lord decided that you were ready to know, my child,” she whispered with tears running down her cheeks.

I cried with her while she explained, voice trembling through her heartbreak. Time and again she stopped, resting, wiping her nose, tapping with a tissue on the tear tracks across her cheeks before taking a deep breath and continuing with the next part of the story. I asked her about the night JB saw my father. She told me she didn’t want him to see me, because what would she have told me about him? So she asked him to leave, and he left the letter, the photograph, and the harmonica. He came prepared, like he didn’t expect Mom to even open the door for him.

She was expecting me to be angry, but how could I be? All I felt was a sense of relief because everything made sense to me. The times she scolded me for singing—maybe she was scared that my dream would also break her heart. When she kept on pushing me to find a husband, to get married. Maybe she thought if they had been married, he would’ve stayed. Maybe she was scared to lose me. It made sense why I could sing, and my brothers couldn’t. Maybe I should have been angry, but I wasn’t.

She finally told me that he plays with a band called “The Nightingales.”

“A friend who knows your father ran into him in Cape Town a few months ago. He regularly plays at a club called Ruby’s, and he wanted to know about you.”

I was excited then to meet Freddy. Still am.

Slang Heuwel” © Olivia M. Coetzee. Translation © 2021 by Olivia M. Coetzee. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

Slang Hiewel

My naam is Susan Ruiters. Maa amal roep my somme Sanna. Ek was gebore innie laat 1970s an my ma, Gertruida Johanna Ruiters en my pa… Wel, dis hoekô ek hie is. Ek sal nooit gewiet het as JB nie vi my die storie vetel het van die man in die foto nie. Miskien sal Ma nog steeds gewag het vi die regte tyd om my te sê. Ma was op gebore op die plaas. Haa familie het gewêk en gebly op die plaas met tien anne families. Die plaas se naam was Slang Hiewel, en al Ma se vyf kinnes, was daa gebore. Dit was ek, die drie Johns, en Gert. Ma se man se naam was John, maa amal het hom somme Senior geroep, ôs oek. Drie van my broes se naam was John. Die eeste John het ôs geroep Junior. Die twiede John was genoem agte sy twie oupas John en Bernard, en soe het ôs hom somme JB geroep. Die dêrre John, die jongste van ôs amal, het ôs op sy naam geroep. Gert was agte een van my oems genoem. Hy was die stil een, altyd gesit biesag met een of anne boek.

As djy by ôs koebuis deu gestaan het, kon djy gesien het hoe groot die plaas is. Djy dink sieke dat die boer moet rêrig agte sy mense kyk. Maa die ienigste ding wat die boer agte gekyk het is was die wal tussen die slange en sy familie was. Slang Hiewel issie somme ʼn opgemaakte naamie,

wan daa’s slange in die soemme, en innie winte issit modder en slange. Dis twinnig families wat hie tussen die slange en die modder liewe. Die families het gegroei soes die plaas gegroei het, maa die eeste vyf families het hie kô bly toe die boer se voo’ouers die land gevat het as sy eie. Die boer se huis het groter gegroei, maa al wat ôs kan voo hêppy was was as niemand deu ʼn slang bepik wassie. Maa elke gesin het al iemand an die dood afgestaan deu ʼn slang se pik.


* * *

Ma het haa tyd gevat om dood te gan. Toe ek vyftien was het die wit dokter haa sês jaa gegie om te liewe, en vi haa met ʼn sakkie pyn pille huistoe gestuu en ʼn brief vi die staats hospitaal se kanker afdeling. Ôs se dokte het haa ʼn sak vol kruie gegie, vi haa gesê wat om te iet en nie te iettie, en vi haa gewys hoe om die dagga voo te berei om te roek en te drink. Sy’t veetag gedraai daai jaa toe sy die nuus kry. Tien jaa late toe ek my sak gepak het en daa weg gestap het, was Ma biesag in haa klein tuintjie, sy was te biesag om agte haa kinnes, haa tuin, en haa huis te kyk om te gewarrie het van doodgan. Dit was die dagga-roek en daai kruie, en die feit dat sy uitgesien het om te liewe wat ha aan die liewe gehou het.

“Jou hât, jou bodies, en jou breins, my kind, dis wat tel,” het Ma altyd my geremind. En sy was liewendig en bewyse dat dit wêk.

Ôs het nooit die land geown wat ôs huis op gestaan hettie, ôs het oekie die huis self geown nie. Dit was die boer se eiendom. Soms het dit gelyk ôs is sy eiendom op die manier hoe hy die manne en vroue rond gemôs het. But hoe is iets jou eiendom, hoe is ʼn huis jou eie wat op iemand annes se land staan? Ma het altyd gegloe dat elke mens moet ʼn huis as hulle eie het voo hulle dood. Sy’t altyd gesê,
“As djy niks annes hettie, dan het djy atleas ʼn plek wat djy kan na huis toe gan. Almal hettit nodig, ʼn plek om na huis toe te gan.”

Ek het opgegroei in ʼn huis met ʼn ma, memories en ʼn foto van die man wat ek gedink het was my pa, of Senior, soes amal hom genoem het, sy kinnes oek. Daa was dae na skool wat ek op Ma se bed in die son gelê en droem het oo Senior, die warmte van sy stem, sy growwe vinges soes hy die trane van my wange af gevie het. Die skelm oegknippe as hy ʼn hand vol lekkes in my hand druk wanne die seuns in die jaats in die ronte haloep, soe om te sê, moetie vi hulle sê nie. Maa oo die jare het sy gesig ve’anne. Die ouer ek geraak het erger kon ek die leemte voel tussen my en Senior. Selfs na die slang se soemme, twie jaa na my tiende vejaasdag, toe Senior een van die vyf manne was wat deu gepik was.

“Kyk, Ma, Senior smile met ʼn mens,” het ek altyd vi my ma gesê as ek soe daa op haa bed gelê het en sy het tien die deu se koesyn kô hang, en my stip angekyk met die klein glimlaggetjie wat op haa gesig gesit het. Maa sy’t my nooit entertain met dittie. My altyd vettel,
“Maa, dis net ʼn foto, my kind,” het sy gesê soes die foto by my vat en die vinge merke van dit begin afvie, die doilie op die bedkassie reg getrek en die foto wee trug gesit op sy plek. Dit was ampe soes sy distance gesoek tussen die man wat sy getrou het en sy ag skaduwees wat elke dag om haa haloep, of haa pla vi nog ʼn stuk brood, of daai een se skool skoene is te klein. Sy sal altyd agte ha anroep soes sy onthou daa moet wee aatapels geskil wôt.

Die naaste ding an ʼn pa-en-dogte vehouding na Senior dood gepik was, was ôs dominee. Hy’t om gegie vi die families, hy het geskel waa skel norrag was, hy het gebid waa gebed norrag was, en hy’t gepriek waa priek norrag was, but mies belangrik, hy’t die kêk koevêtjies op tyd kô afgie elke maan. Hy’t sy wêk gedoen om sy skaape in ritme te hou met die scriptures wat hy vi ôs voogelies het. But ek was dankbaar vi ôs dominee. Hy was die een was wat eeste vi Ma gesoebat het om in die kêk koor te sing, toe Ma nie wil beweegie, toe dreig hy haa met die sondes wat sy doen om ʼn “Engel uit Got se koor te hou. Sy woore nie meine nie.” Ek was die ienigste een wat ʼn noot kon hou. Die mense altyd gesê ek vat agte my pa, maa ek het altyd gewonne hoe dit kan wies, wan ek het nog nooit vi Senior gehoo singie, wat nog van sing.

“Die kind is gebore mettie duiwel,” het Ma altyd gesê wanne JB biesag was met sy brant stiekery, die anne broes se speelgoed karretjies, of my poppe, en Ma se uitgeraffelde dollies wat sy latere wou reg maak wanne sy die tyd gehad het om dit te doen. JB was twie jaa jonger as ek.

“Djy stiek vure an waa oekal djy kô!” het sy altyd vi JB geskel, en wanne hy nie geluiste hettie dan het sy vi my geskel om op te hou sing. Issie soes ek myself kon stop sing hettie. Maa ek het maa getry om al my note by koor oefening elke dag uit te kry. Maa ek kon net nooit vestaan hoekô Ma soe tien dit was dat ek gesing hettie.
“Djy moet ʼn man vat en trou. Ek soek kleinkinnes,” is ʼn deuntjie wat ek en die anne meisies in die koor somme baie goed ken. Wat was altyd weird was om te sien hoe my broes en die seun van Slang Hiewel nooit vetel was van hoe hulle moet trou en vrou vattie. Dis ampe soe ôs moet die man gan soek, en dan vi daai man trou en sy kinnes kry. Maa my ma se wens vi my om man te vat en kinnes te kry het ampe waarheid gewôt. Sy’t my wee gedreig met sondes tienoo Got nes die dominee haa gedreig het, toe ek en ʼn jaa na ek skool kla gemaakit vi Connie ontmoet het. “Sal djy met my trou?” Was ʼn vraag wat ekkie wou hoo van ʼn man affie. Maa daai wassie expectation as djy as vrou ʼn ‘opregte man’ volgens my ma ontmoet. Hy was ʼn mechanic, net soes sy pa en sy pa se pa. But dis soes alles wat mens doen doen djy om iemand annes gelukkig te maak, maa daai wassie wat die man wat my pa is dinge gedoen hettie, volgens JB. Maa ek en Connie se mislukte vehouding hettie my ma gestop om an te hou karringie.

“Sanna, djy moet ʼn man vat en trou,” het sy begin soebat die jaa toe ek besluit ek gan my pa gan soek. JB was die een wat daai vuur in my kop angestiek het. Ma was reg, JB begin vure waa oekal hy gan, en soes hy op gegroei het, het sy woore sy vuurhoutjies geraak, en daa wat hy gegan het het hy vure annie brand gestiek. Maa ek het hommie gegloe toe hy my sê dat Senior nie my pa issie. Ek het net gedink JB is wee JB. Maa toe hy sien ek vat hommie kop toe nie, toe ruk hy sy gan op en vlieg by Ma se kamer in. Die einigeste tyd wanne hy daai vryheid het is wanne Ma by ʼn moeder’s meeting is by die kêk, of as sy kliniek toe gan. JB het trug gekô met ʼn klein parceltjie in sy hand. Hom langs my kô neesmyt op die anne koebuis stoel.

“Kyk vi jouself!” het hy gesê soes hy die rekkies wat die pakkie anmekaa gehou het. Hy het die foto, die brief, en die bekfluitjie voo my gesit, en my gevra,
“Lyk die soes ek lieg?”

Hy het die bekfluitjie opgetel tewyl ek die brief en die foto bekyk het. Die man in die foto met dik swat hare nes meine. JB het begin suig an die bekfluitjie en êg beginte hoes van die stof wat in die bekfluitjie vegader het.

Dis weird hoe woore en gebeurtenisse vars in mens se kop bly wanne mens deu life-changing oomblikke gan.

Maa daai was net helfte vannie storie, wan JB sê toe met ʼn groot sug, “Ja en hy was mos een aan hie oek.” My angstige vrae van wat JB bedoel het was geantwoort met ʼn storie van hoe dit die jaa voo Senior dood was, hulle het ôs gesê ôs moet gan slaap, soes wat hulle gewoonlik gedoen het. Maa JB wat nooit geluiste hettie het trug in gegan, gemaak soes hy dôs was. En daa het hy die man in die foto by die tafel gekry sit, biesag om sy rooi bekfluitjie af te vie.

“Hy’t geruik soes Aqua Velva en roek,” het JB gesê. My vrae an JB oo hoekô hy my nog nooit iets gesê hettie wat geantwoort met hy’t uitgevinne die dag toe die brief lies, die foto en die bekfluitjie gesien het.

Die namirrag toe Ma van die kliniek af kô toe vetel sy die hele storie van my pa en sy droem om ʼn Jazz band in die Kaap te join. Sy’t my vetel hoe sy alles getry het om hom te laat bly, maa toe hy sy mind op gemaak het kon sy niks doenie. Hy’t beloewe om te kô kuier, maa hy’t net nooit uitgestiekie. Hy’t haa gelos met ʼn paa honnert rand, ʼn pappe babatjie, en ʼn gebroke hât. Sy’t vi Senior ken sy al an kleins af. En hy’t trug getrek na sy Ma hulle toe ʼn paa maane later. Sy’t velief geraak op Senior en hy’t geraak op haa met haa pappe babatjie. Ma het gesê Senior het my gevat soes sy eie bloed en wou nooit hê ek moes dink ek issie syne nie.

En toe Senior dood, toe besluit sy dat sy sal my sê eendag wanne ek reg is vi die volle storie.

“Dit lyk soes die Jirre besluit het djy’s reg om die waarheid te ken, my kind,” het sy met trane in haa oë gesê. Maa hoe kon ek kwaad wies vi haa of vi hom? Ek het saggies saam met haa gehuil soes sy met ʼn bewende stem deu haa hâtbriek geklouter het, soes sy plek-plek gestoppit om te rus, soes sy haa neus af gevie het, dan ʼn diep asem in gevat het voo sy wee voot gegan het. Hoe kon ek kwaad wies? Ek het haa gevra oo die aan wat JB hom gesien het. Sy’t my vetel hoe sy hommie wou toelaat om my te sienie. Wan wat sou sy my dan gesê van die vreemdeling met die rooi bekfluitjie. Sy het sieke vewag ek moet kwaad wies, maa hoe kon ek kwaad wies? Alles het sense gemaak vi my. As Ma geskel het wanne ek gesing het. Miskien was sy bang dat my droem oek haa hât gan briek. Die feit dat sy dik gehou het ek moet trou, because miskien dink sy as hulle getroud was, sou hy gebly het. Miskien was sy bang om my te veloo. Waa ek my stem gekry het maak nou sense. Maa hoe kon ek kwaad gewies het? Miskien moes ek maa ek wassie. Sy’t my vetel van sy band “Die Nightingales”. Ek was excited om vi Freddy te onmoet. Ek is nog steeds.


© Olivia M. Coetzee




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