"A Walk In The Bush" by Literary Awards Finalist, Sandra Jensen

The rains came early. We are supposed to be back in Durban, but it’s been bucketing for three days and we can’t get out of the game reserve. I’m suffocating in this one-room tourist rondavel. It’s bad enough sharing the room with Ray and Frank, my sixty-five year old bird-watching identical twin uncles. They’re glued together like two old women. They sleep on the floor. Then there’s my brother Pete and his wife Clare, endlessly bickering. They have one of the single beds. Then there’s me and my husband, Nick. We have the other single bed. Our flight back to Detroit is in two days. We’ll miss it. I walk out the door, trying to get some space. Trying to not yell at everyone to shut the fuck up. Rain pours off the thatch, a sheet of water between me and the storm. Pete follows me, hangdog, trying to get me to talk to him. He’s my big brother but sometimes you wouldn’t know it. I refuse to look at him.

Bridge washed away, says the sodden guide, giving us an update on the situation. He’s stood guard outside our hut, rusty shotgun slung over his shoulder, ever since we got back from our ‘walk’.

What about another road?

No roads Madame. Only one road.

There must be a way. Is there part of the bridge? Is it all gone?

All gone. A truck fell into the river. Driver gone.

I guess we can’t walk out, Pete says, trying to sound funny but I don’t laugh. I hate walks, especially in the rain.

*****

The drive here was awful. I’m a pressure cooker of unwarranted fury at Nick. Pete’s talking to everyone but his wife. My uncles insist on stopping every five minutes to check the local bird population. We’re three couples stuffed into a beat up Range Rover inhabiting three different worlds. When we finally arrive we discover there is only a single visitor rondavel in the reserve. No one had thought to check. It’s too late to drive back.

Ray laces up his walking boots. He slept the last hour of the drive, drooling on Frank’s shoulder. They are both all cheery and oblivious to the thick blanket of repressed irritation in the room. Our stuff lies in heaps on the floor. I had bagged the bed in the corner, it had cleaner looking sheets.

Let’s go for a walk.

Yeah man let’s go for a walk, Frank says.

Great, Pete says, trying to sound as cheerful as they do.

Nick looks at me. I look at Clare.

We have to take a guide, she says.

We don’t need a guide, there’s maps right here, my brother says, shoving a wad of damp paper at her.

All kinds of walks. Shows you exactly where to go, and how long they take.

Ray and Frank crowd around him, chirping like the birds on their bird list. I sit on the bed, sinking down into a creaking divot.

Here’s one, only three hours. Perfect. Takes us to the lake and back, Pete says.

Great man, I’ll get my binocs. I’ve already clocked two yellow bellied Greenbuls.

Yeah man we clocked two yellow-bellies!

I stand up. I want to do something but I don’t want to go for a walk. I never wanted to walk. I mean, I never want to go on a walk. All my life I’ve hated it. I guess it started with being dragged over the hills behind Killybegs in gale force winds and drizzle sinking into my ears, messing my hair. The heather was nice. Oh yes the heather was nice. Wind so high I had to bend over, forward, eyes down. My curling-tonged bangs a fright. Who wants to go on a trek over the Donegal moors? But I’m alone in this thinking so I always tag along because, well, because I never let myself do what I want. I do what everyone else wants, resentment stuffing into me like wads of tissue. There’s always room for more.

Clare is right, there’s a big sign on the door saying, Do Not Leave Compound Without Armed Guide. A big sign. I stare at it a moment but Ray and Frank seem oblivious to it. They must know what they are doing. They’ve been here before, and if not here, they’ve been in the bush. They are African born and raised. Tough nuts. Ray has a steel bolt holding his right shoulder together. He drove his motorcycle straight into the back of a truck. Frank was an officer in the South African army. Ray should have been too, but since they were twins the army thought better of putting them together, be too confusing for the men. So Ray was a private. It made no difference to them – they kept changing uniforms. Ray got a good meal and went to the officers’ ball and no one was the wiser. I could always tell them apart, so could mum, and Pete of course. Now they’re just like two old crows. Chattering and pecking at each other. Frankie couldn’t be out of Ray’s sight for more than a few minutes.

Ray often told me about his army training in the desert. You can’t trust your eyes, he said, Gotta trust your instincts or you’re dead. We’re not in the desert, we’re in full-on bush jungle. But I’m just a girl and there’re three men here. Three? What about Nick? Four. He might be king of the streets in Detroit but not here where there aren’t any streets. Now I think of it, Pete doesn’t count either. I wouldn’t trust him to guide me anywhere, let alone on a walk – a walk – you mean a hike, a three-hour hike in the veldt? I try not to think about this and pull on my socks. Mind you, Pete has some kind of angel watching over him. He’d been covering the war in Mozambique for The Johannesburg Star. He got shot at by people with sharpened teeth, pointed like little daggers, he said. His car was riddled with gunshot but he wasn’t touched. Another time Pete climbed up a tree in Zimbabwe, poked at a snake with a stick. Clare was down below, running for help. She saw what kind of snake it was. The worst. Instant death. And there was Pete, poking away with his stick. After a while he got bored and climbed down. Later Clare found out that he’d done the one thing that you could do if faced with such a snake, the one thing that might save your life. Pete didn’t know this, he was just wanting to see what it did if he poked it. He was like that with me when I was little. Tickling me until I vomited.

Hey guys, Pete says generally to the humid room, You coming?

I put my shoes on, press the Velcro tabs shut. Pete’s out the door, behind Ray and Frankie. They bob along, Pete a head taller than our uncles. All three are blonde. All grinning stupidly. I smell something sickly in the air. Marijuana smoke. I can’t believe it, not after Clare’s screaming match in the Rover, telling Pete he could fuck up his life with ganja but she wasn’t going to stick around to watch.

Nick puts on his leather jacket, Clare hands us each a bottle of water. I put mine in my little backpack. Nick clutches his.

Do you want me to take it? I ask.

I’ll carry it.

If you take the pack you can take both.

That’s okay, I’ll carry mine.

I’m not going to argue. Not again. The last argument still sits in my stomach, oxidizing. He didn’t want to bring a knapsack. He doesn’t carry bags on principle. I don’t mean suitcases, I mean something to carry what you need for the day. Seems sensible when going on holiday, right? But Nick says he doesn’t want to look like a jerk; he says he’s got to keep his body streamlined in case he gets into a fight. Who’s going to want to fight him here? Me, I suppose.

Nick stands in front of the mirror above the rust stained sink. You can hardly see anything in that mirror. It’s smoky and cracked but he’s still he standing there, pinching the corners of his moustache, pulling his goatee down into a perfect little V. I used to love how much care he took over his face and now I can’t even watch. I thought women were supposed to make their men wait, not the other way around.

Come on! I say, hating myself the moment it comes out. I can’t just leave him, I can’t just go. I want to. I don’t want to. Clare’s already gone, her long legs catching up to the boys. And one boy left, not a hair out of place. In this place, in the middle of no-where, the bush.

Hey doll, I’m coming, Nick calls after me, forgetting his water bottle on the edge of the sink.

I don’t say anything, not going to. I hold my mouth shut otherwise some slimy poison filled worm will slither out. Doll. He always calls me that. Hey Doll. Makes one half of me melt and the other half, the right half, turn to stone.

We trudge over flat terrain for a while, scrubby and dry. Pete stops by a Marula tree but it has no fruit so he moves on, disappointed. In the Rover he’d told me he’d be making Marula wine. Clare gives him her I told you so face, but he ignores it, moves on, scrambling over a low, bushy rise to catch up with Ray and Frankie who are leaning against the trunk of a dead looking baobab smoking another joint, openly this time.

Will we see elephants? Nick asks. His face is beaded with sweat. He must be baking inside that leather jacket.

I suppose, I say.

Pete holds the map. Ray peers at it, giving the joint a drag and then flicking it out with his thumb when Clare and I come up. Frankie sticks his eyes into the binoculars and points them at some vague place in the distance, his shoulder pressed into Ray’s.

Red-knobbed Coot, he whispers excitedly.

I look. Nothing. I can’t see. I forgot to bring my glasses. Shit.

Where are we? I ask Pete.

Don’t know. I think over here somewhere. We go along this path until it gets to a kind of field.

That’s a field?

I think so.

Looks more like a lake to me.

No that’s next to it.

Next to the field?

Yes.

What are the exclamation marks?

A point of interest?

There must be a – you know – a note of what the signs mean.

Pete turns the piece of paper over. It’s brown, one corner torn off. There’s nothing there.

I guess they don’t tell us.

It’s why we are supposed to take a guide, Clare says.

Rubbish. It’s easy. We just follow the line.

What line?

This one. Pete stabs his finger at the paper. The paper gives way, opens up a hole, tearing up to the missing corner.

Well that helps a lot, Clare says.

Pete’s lips tighten together into a thin, pale line. He won’t say anything. Not out loud. I know how he is. He might as well be screaming but I’m not sure anyone else feels it. The contained lump in my stomach gets bigger. I want to cry. I hate him getting angry. I don’t mind it at me so much but something wants to break inside me when he fights with Clare. Blood rushes to my ears, thud thud thud, trying to shut the noise out.

What’s the matter man? Frankie asks, handing the binocs to Ray.

Yeah man, what’s the matter? Ray says.

Pete broke the map.

Pete glares at me.

We don’t need the map. It’s a stupid map and anyway I can see the path from here. It goes over that stream.

Ray walks ahead, Frankie close behind, then Pete, then Clare, then me. Nick at the end. My radar back feels out to him. I try to stop it but I can’t. Never could. The strings are caught, tied, matted, ground in. A forever-knot.

We never said that, did we? No vows of forever. No until death us do part. Instead we sang some nice new-agey Apache song. It went in one ear and straight out the other, except for the first line: Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter for the other. The rest is a blank and Nick’s behind me, caught in my strings, a frightened deer, dressed in panther clothing. I walk faster, get closer to Clare.

This is stupid. Very stupid, she says quietly. It’s already four. The sun’s going go down in a couple of hours and we aren’t even half way.

What walk are we on?

The three-hour one.

So we should be okay?

I think we made a wrong turn back there.

Oh.

The stream moves like fat soft shit, bits of rotting leaves and white froth carried along the top. I want to step right over it, but it’s too wide.

Just step in. It’s not deep – no crocs here, Frankie says from the other side.

I guess he knows so I step in, my shoe pressing into mud, thick water seeping between the Velcro snaps, around my ankles. I step out fast, don’t want to think what’s in there. Both shoes are wet, squelching, squish squish.

Fuck I hate this. This is why I never want to go on a walk. You always get wet, or dirty, or something. It’s never fun. Oh, when it’s over you can feel good about yourself. Or so other people said. I just was glad to be back home, dry, comfy, warm. At least it’s warm here. No bitter Donegal winds. No sub-zero breezes whipping around downtown Detroit high-rises. In fact it’s sweltering. Everything sticking to me. Even my knickers are damp. I worry if it’s sweat or blood. Thank God I remembered to bring tampons. Thank God I brought one with me. I look around for a tree, a bush, something to hide behind. A narrow flat muddy bank lines the edge of the river. Up ahead Ray and Frankie are disappearing into a wall of grass.

I guess this is the field, Pete says. He doesn’t look as certain as he did when we started off.

This field is not what I call a field. Fields are flat, green spaces, somewhere to see across, something home-like and comforting, a place to gambol and frolic, to lie down on your back in, arms and legs spread out like a star to the sun. This, however, is a forest of grass. Six feet high grass. Taller than all of us, even Clare. Well I guess if they all go into the forest I can squat down here.

I’m going to pee. Go on ahead, I say.

I’ll wait, says Clare. I’m relieved. Nick stands next to her, his face pinched against the sun, his perfectly pointed goatee not so perfectly pointed anymore. His head will burn. I’d shaved it with the number two blade the day before we flew to Durban. He had six-day-old growth. Not enough against this sun. I should have told him to put sunscreen on. Stop it, I tell myself. He can look after himself. I’m tired. Don’t want to worry about him. Can’t stop it.

Can you be quick? Clare asks.

I squat down behind them, trying to look invisible. I can’t see if there’s any blood. I quickly wipe a finger along myself. Sticky. Must be blood, I pull at the string, it slithers out, almost black. I press it into the ground, it is soft and gives way easily. I scrape some mud over, covering up the little bloodied bullet. Clare is saying something to Nick. I can’t hear what it is. I quickly unwrap the new tampon, throwing the plastic away. I don’t care about pollution, not now. I stick it inside me, pull my panties up, zip my jeans.

Sorry.

That’s okay. You all right?

Just my period.

You too? Mine started this morning.

Full moon last night.

Yeah.

Nick’s gone on into the thicket, pulling at me. I feel a bit sick. I think I want him out of my sight but when he is it’s like I’ve dropped out of the sky without a parachute. I tell myself it’s all right. I smile at Clare and she smiles back. I like her. Always have. I remember the first time I visited Pete and her in Johannesburg. We sat on the edge of the stoop, and she told me about what a pain it was finding a swimsuit that fit her breasts. I had the same problem. We talked like schoolgirls. She smoked a hand-roll. I was proud she’d talk to me like this. She was great. I mean really great. She was a big shot in COSATU. She knew Nelson Mandela. She’d been bombed, jailed, freed. Beaten. She had a Zulu lover. She was as white as me, but she didn’t feel like it. She was Afrikaans but her heart was African she had told me. She’d given up her job now that Mandela was in. She was burned out, finished, she said. Instead she stayed at home, behind a barbed wire topped wall while Pete went off for days or even weeks, covering whatever war was going on in Africa. There was always at least one.

We walk in silence, her in front, me slipping through the corridor of grass opening up as she walks. The grass smells like it’s bleeding. It scratches my arms, hooks into the straps of my backpack. We catch up with Nick, Pete and the others. They are standing together, tall grass pressing in around them like a crowd of people. Ray and Frankie are head to head, moving the torn map about, four handed. Pete’s face is white, his eyes avoiding Clare.

Nick turns to me, reaches out. Touches my elbow. I let my arm stay there a moment and then drop it, looking into his eyes. I love you. Read my eyes. Not my body. I feel like two opposites, the meeting of the oceans, two colours, two thoughts, both wet, both deep, dark and drowning. Half of me loves him, the other half wants to push my fists into him and I don’t know why. He’s the love of my life. When we touch it’s like touching myself. His body has the same temperature as mine, the same rhythm, the same heartbeat.

We’re lost, Nick says.

What do you mean we’re lost?

Ray looks up suddenly, pressing his finger against his mouth.

Shhhh.

We all go dead silent. Still. Nothing moves except the sun. It’s slowly sinking.

Hear that?

What?

The grunting.

I listen. I hear a swish swish of the grass tops. I look at Ray, he shakes his head. Then I hear it. It sounds like a car engine dying, quick. And then I hear it again. Somewhere to the right. Not so far. Another grunt. More like munching. And water, something like water.

What is it? I whisper.

Hippos, Clare says. Her voice is flat. No emotion. Nothing.

Hippos? Surely they’re okay? But something about her voice tells me it isn’t okay, not okay at all.

Do we have a knife? she asks. Anything?

I turn to Nick. He never goes anywhere without his Gerber switchblade. He shakes his head, no. I can’t believe it. Ray and Frankie dig inside their packs. Nothing. I don’t bother to look at Pete. Clare takes the map from Ray and Frankie. She stares at it a moment, looks up at the darkening sky and then hands it back. It’s almost torn in two.

We’re nowhere on that map, she says.

No one speaks. Pete shrugs as if nothing is wrong. Ray and Frankie have merged into each other. One scrawny South African ex-boxing champion body. Useless. Not even a knife. Nick’s breathing is quick. I’ve never seen him so scared. He could fight a gang of twenty in a bar room brawl in Kersheval but here he’s nothing.

Clare points off towards the left.

I think the compound is that way. We have to move fast. Very fast.

She turns, her long legs pressing through the grass, her elbows wide. I take Nick’s hand. It’s soft, afraid. I follow Clare, fast as I can on my short legs, trying to silence the squish squish of my wet sneakers, my beating heart, Nick close behind me, still holding my hand. He gives it a squeeze and I squeeze back.

My face feels wet. I think it’s just sweat and then I realize it’s not. So much for feeling no rain.

Sandra Jensen was born in South Africa but left as a child and has lived in England, Canada, Greece and Ireland. She is presently based in Berlin, Germany. She has written for the theatre; short non-fiction works have appeared in Whole Earth Magazine; creative non-fiction in Verbsap; fiction in The Dublin Quarterly and r.kv.ry Quarterly and forthcoming in Word Riot and Versal; she has been short-listed for the Canadian literary journal Event‘s creative non-fiction contest and for This Magazine‘s 11th Annual Great Canadian Literary Hunt; a short story of Jensen’s was given an honourable mention for the fiction prize at New Millenium Writings #24, and she is a finalist in Glimmer Train‘s Family Matters competition. She is currently working on a short story collection and a novel set in Sri Lanka during the “Black July” of 1983.

1 Comment

  1. Burt Kempner

    What a superb story! Even when it ventures out into the bush, you never lose the feeling of claustrophobia that envelops the characters. I greatly admire the way the author casually tosses out gems, like the oxidizing argument. Sandra Jensen is such a gifted, graceful writer. I am eager to read more of her work/

    Reply

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