|A Blade of Grass
By Lewis DeSoto
Published by Ecco
September 2003; 0-060-55426-6; 389 pages
First she must wash the seeds.
To do this, Tembi places them in an old tin can, salvaged long ago from the refuse heap of the big house -- a tin can that once might have contained jam, or peaches, or sauce, but is now scrubbed clean of its label and any residue of sweet or bitter. A vessel of many uses, worn smooth by many hands.
There are five seeds. Each is no larger than one of her own fingernails -- pale, pink, oval, the outer husks hard and corrugated with fine ridges that gradually appeared as the seeds dried. She has kept them safe for many days, folded into the corner of a handkerchief tucked in the pocket of her dress.
Cyril brought the seeds. Not like this, hard and dry, but still inside a fruit, a fruit strange to this part of the world, with firm yellow flesh and the seeds deep inside. Cyril, who is a friend of her father, from the time before the Relocation. Cyril brought them, a gift from her father, from the city, from the gold mines where her father works, where he digs the hard yellow metal deep underground. A gift from her father, Cyril said, a gift from a faraway city.
Her father cannot come himself, so he sends this fruit instead, in his place, this fruit offering such surprising flavour, such smoothness on her tongue, and the taste that is there and then not there. And the seeds hidden deep inside.
When the fruit is eaten, every bit of the yellow flesh taken from the rind and the juices licked from her lips and fingers, all that is left are these five pale seeds. Tembi folds them into her handkerchief and tucks this gift into her pocket. Already, while eating the fruit, she has resolved to plant the seeds, in some secret place, and nurture them, and bring forth sweetness out of the earth, so that when her father returns from the mines he will have this taste in his mouth to wash away the bitterness of the gold dust. A gift.
First she must wash the seeds. There is an iron tap outside the kraal washhouse, one that the farmer installed not long ago, so that the women would not have to walk to the river with buckets and pails to fetch water or to wash their clothes. Washing clothes in the river was bad for the water, the farmer said, so he built the washhouse and installed the tap outside. Now the water is drawn out of the deep earth by the windmill in the maize field, the metal blades always drifting in a lazy circle under the soft breeze that blows from the west and the faint regular grind of the pump mechanism, always audible amongst the sounds of birds during the day and the chirrup of the crickets at night.
The water is warm on Tembi's fingers when she opens the faucet, warm from its journey through the sun-heated iron pipe laid across the field to the kraal washhouse, and when she stoops to touch her lips to the spout of the tap the water is warm and tastes of iron. She lets the stream run a minute, splashing on her bare feet, until the water becomes cold and tastes of the dark deep earth.
Tembi unfolds her handkerchief and lets the seeds fall into the bottom of the tin can, then half fills it with water. She cups her hand over the opening and shakes the can, rinsing the seeds, then pours out the water and fills the can again, and shakes the seeds, then repeats the whole procedure, rinsing the seeds until the can is cold in her hand and the seeds glisten in the sunlight, cool and moist.
Above Tembi, the African sky is a high wide arch of blue. The air is hot and dry, the season is new, ready for planting. She raises the tin can and touches it to her brow, shivering at the pleasant little stab of the cold metal on her hot skin. Far above her in the blue arch of the sky, a glint of silver light gleams for a moment and the sigh of a jet's engine mingles with the rustling breeze in the branches of the eucalyptus trees.
Someone is going somewhere, to the faraway world. How does this place where she stands look from up there in the faraway sky? She sees a quilt of ochre and brown and green, and the white farmhouse, small as a page in a small book, and the tiny glint of metal sparking in the sun where the light catches the tin can in her hand.
Tembi turns off the faucet. At her feet the earth is muddy, and she wiggles her toes into the cool, wet soil, and her skin is the same dark color as the African soil when it is wet after the rain.
A shadow moves across the land. Across the quilt of ochre and brown and green, across the hills and the valleys and the rivers, across the maize fields and the veldt grasses where the cattle graze, across the farmhouse bordered by eucalyptus trees and the kraal and the washhouse, across this place called Kudufontein. From the corner of her eye, just on the edge of her vision, Tembi sees the rapid flicker of a shadow on the ground, as if a hand has suddenly placed itself between the earth and the sun. More rapidly than her senses can register, the shadow becomes a sudden dark cloud that leaps from the earth to swoop over her. A metallic shriek rips the sky and the black shapes of two military jets boom and flash over the farm just above the roofs. Like predatory hawks they scream away towards the border, and the booming of the engines slams against Tembi's body, buffeting the air with the acrid stench of jet fuel.
Behind the farmhouse the treetops bend and sway in the hot wind and the doves that roost there fling themselves wildly into the air like bits of torn paper. Tembi feels the trembling of the earth in her legs and in the soil at her feet and in the chase of her heart as it races inside the cage of her ribs. Above her the two metallic specks glint in the far blue heavens. At her feet is the fallen tin can and the spilled water and the seeds scattered in the mud.
She bends to gather the seeds, for she will plant them this day. But first she must wash the seeds.
Set on the border between South Africa and an unnamed neighboring country in the 1970s, A Blade of Grass is a suspenseful novel about a bitter struggle over a small farm and its dramatic consequences for two women, one white and one black.
The story centers on Märit Laurens, a young woman of British descent, recently orphaned and newly wed, who comes to live with her husband, Ben, on their newly purchased farm. Shortly after her arrival, violence strikes at the heart of Märit's world, leaving her alone and isolated. Devastated, confused, but determined to run the farm on her own, Märit finds herself in a simmering tug of war between the local Afrikaner community that surrounds the farm and the black workers who live on it, both vying for control over the land in the wake of tragedy.
Märit's only supporter is her black housekeeper, Tembi, who, like Märit, is alone in the world. The women are determined to hold on to the farm, but the quietly encroaching civil war brings out conflicting loyalties that turn the fight for the farm into a fight for their lives.
A Blade of Grass is a wrenching story of friendship and betrayal and of the trauma of the land that has shaped post-colonial Africa. Thrilling to read and morally complex in its message, it offers a fresh, profound, and emotionally immediate perspective on what it means to be black or white in a country where both races live and feel entitlement.(back to top)
Lewis DeSoto was born in South Africa and emigrated with his family to Canada in the 1960s, where he attended UBC and was awarded a Masters degree in Fine Art. He has exhibited paintings in public and private galleries across Canada. DeSoto's short stories and essays have been published in numerous journals and he was awarded the Writers Union Short Prose Award. The former editor of the Literary Review of Canada, DeSoto is married to the artist Gunilla Josephson and divides his time between Toronto and Normandy.