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from the November 2021 issue

Snake’s Hill

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


Words Without Borders · Olivia Coetzee Reads an Excerpt from "Slang Hiewel" (Snake's Hill)

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.

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