An extraordinary, literary memoir from a gay white South African, coming of age at the end of apartheid in the late 1970s. Glen Retief's childhood was at once recognizably ordinary--and brutally unusual.
Raised in the middle of a game preserve where his father worked, Retief's warm nuclear family was a preserve of its own, against chaotic forces just outside its borders: a childhood friend whose uncle led a death squad, while his cultured grandfather quoted Shakespeare at barbecues and abused Glen's sister in an antique-filled, tobacco-scented living room.
But it was when Retief was sent to boarding school, that he was truly exposed to human cruelty and frailty. When the prefects were caught torturing younger boys, they invented "the jack bank," where underclassmen could save beatings, earn interest on their deposits, and draw on them later to atone for their supposed infractions. Retief writes movingly of the complicated emotions and politics in this punitive all-male world, and of how he navigated them, even as he began to realize that his sexuality was different than his peers'.
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GLEN RETIEF is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. He has been published in a variety of literary journals and quarterlies and awarded a James Michener Writing Fellowship and the AWP Intro Journals Award for Creative Nonfiction. He lives in Sunbury, Pennsylvania.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Weight of Elephants
“We live,” says Miss Jeanette, leaning forward and lowering her voice the way she does when she wants to impress us, “in one of the largest unspoiled wildernesses in the world. Aren’t we lucky, children? Just look around.”
She throws her arms wide open, like a prophetess presenting her tribe with a fulfilled promise. The entire class—all twelve or so of us Standard Threes, or fifth-graders—are standing in the school backyard, along the perimeter fence. Tall green ficus, marula, and jackal berry trees reach up towards the pale African noonday sky. Masked weaver nests, lumpy, wheelbarrow-sized hay sculptures, dangle from a spindly fever tree. Birds hop, chirp, and chatter around us—black-eyed bulbuls, tiny brown manikins, and bright blue glossy starlings; bee-eaters sipping at coral tree blossoms; hadedah ibises cawing and chuckling as they rise from their stick nests. From biology class we know there are 517 species of birds in our Kruger National Park—almost as many as in the entire continent of North America. Two thousand different kinds of plants populate our plains and gullies. A hundred and fifty mammals, more than in any other national park in the world, wander around our neighborhood: leopards, elephants, and aardvarks; sable antelope, giraffes, and monkeys. Could the Garden of Eden have been so abundant?
None of us nine-year-olds bother to look at any of this, though. We have heard this lecture from Miss Jeanette before, on how fortunate we are to live here; on what a great treasure for humanity all of this is—this sliver of land, shaped like a thin, pregnant amputee, lodged up in the northeastern corner of South Africa. We have heard how the entire state of Israel could fit inside this wilderness; we’ve heard how Wales could squeeze snugly into its swollen underbelly. Mr. Flip, the Standard Four teacher, has explained in assembly that it would take two million rugby fields to cover the entire expanse—one for every person living in Johannesburg. Who cares? When is the bell going to ring for the end of school? More importantly, what will my mother have cooked today for lunch?
Then, at last, the bell jangles, and instantly we fly, helter-skelter, in the glaring white sunlight, back into the classroom to grab our books. I pull my bike from the rack. On the way home, I speed past the Dutch Reformed church with its flying buttresses; the cricket and rugby field, with its family of warthogs playing in the sprinklers; and the house on the corner where my Auntie Merle, my Uncle Ian, and my cousins Lorna and Neil live. I head down the main street, Soenie Street, and tear downhill on Grysbok. I dash across the low water bridge—this is where I’ve seen hyenas and jackals; once I flew off this bridge on the way to school and skinned my palms and knees on the river sand, but today I fly gracefully across, a bee-eater diving for a sawfly, a kingfisher darting nestwards. Left again, and uphill: now I follow the course of the dry stream bed we call the spruitjie, which runs right in front of my family’s home and winds its way through the village until it joins the wide Nwatswishaka. Thisspruitjie of ours is lined with bushwillows and silverleafs. On cloudy days the silverleafs glint a dull nickel color, the shade of twenty-cent coins coated with dust.
And now, here I am; I’m home, huffing and panting, by the newly built ranch house on the right, the one with the single knob thorn tree on the front corner by the barbecue and the lone appleleaf bush in the front yard, with the hollowed-out rock that serves as a birdbath. Corrugated zinc roofing slopes upward. I enter the wide wire gate, the one my parents keep closed at night against animals. I drop my bike on the lawn, next to my sister’s and brother’s—they must be home from school already. The impala grazing the lawn take no notice of me. I open the back kitchen screen door. Through the kitchen, with the linoleum-patterned floor and the pine breakfast set in front of fridges and chest freezers; through the TV room, with the kudu paintings and recliners; down the dark passageway, to my bedroom, where I drop my schoolbag next to the headboard with the Rand McNally globe and the Illustrated Children’s Bible.
In the dining room, back at the other end of the house, the rest of the family is already seated, and Mommy’s dishing up macaroni and cheese. The room smells rich and savory. Thick tubes of egg-filled rigatoni steam on my plate. Salad lies alongside the pasta: iceberg lettuce and red medallions of tomato and neatly peeled wedges of cucumber.
“What did you learn in school today?” Mommy asks. Mommy is auburn and tanned; shorter than Daddy, or most of the other women in the village—she likes to wear apricot-colored blouses and neat, white shorts. Her skin is the sorrel hue of river sand when you splash water on it; her eyes brown, like bark. Love radiates out from her like the heat in her hair, like her perfume, which smells of roses, or is it lavender?
“Nothing,” I tell Mommy. School might as well not exist for me; all I can think of is the food. “I don’t remember.”
“Nothing?” This is Daddy. Daddy is taller, much lighter-complexioned than Mommy, and he has a small belly from beer and barbecues. He has a mole growing out the left side of his nose and lots of tiny dark hairs on his arms and legs. On his head, his hair is thick and brown, but he is starting to go bald in the middle: Mommy says soon he’ll be a kaalkop, a barehead, like Kojak, her favorite police detective. Daddy’s official job here in the Kruger National Park is “quantitative biologist,” meaning he programs computers for the research department. Sometimes he also gets to help out his brother-in-law, Uncle Ian, a biologist, with field research.
Daddy loves us, too, but in a different way: he loves to tease and play with us, and to ask us questions about the world.
“Who just became the first female British prime minister?” he’ll ask us.
“Who sings ‘Love You Inside and Out’?” The Bee Gees! Now, around the dining room table, he lowers his spectacles and stares at me, wide-eyed and blinking.
“All day long, Glennie? Six hours with Miss Jeanette—nothing?”
Lisa—two years younger than me; blond, skinny, and pale—now begins to softly guffaw. David, who just recently turned four—stocky and brown-haired, he’s still a baby; Lisa often carries him around, spread-eagled, in a blanket on her back, like a Swazi mother—picks up Lisa’s thread of laughter and starts to splutter, with his mouth still full of macaroni. I can see it: soon he’s going to mess food. At this age I have little time for David. He runs inside with mud on his arms and ants crawling on his chest. Right now, for example, I know he has no idea why he’s giggling.
But Daddy’s still looking at me. “Just something about rugby fields, Daddy,” I say, now, ladling a second helping of macaroni and cheese onto my plate. “Two million of them. The size of the park. It’s the same story Mr. Louis always tells. I’ve explained to Daddy before.”
* * *
We kids are cavalier like this. As far as we are concerned, children everywhere have parents who work for the National Parks Board; uncles who are global elephant experts—Uncle Ian is one of the people with the responsibility for deciding how many elephant breeding herds need to get shot annually to preserve the vegetation. Why wouldn’t other kids have houses like ours, filled with wildlife memorabilia? Mommy and Daddy’s rhino ashtrays, with kidney-shaped depressions in their backs; Merle and Ian’s end table sewn out of a stuffed elephant leg.
If you ask us, “What does watching a movie mean?” we’ll say: “Oh, those boring flicks!”—meaning the nature documentaries that get screened over and over again outdoors in the tourist camp. If you query us about restaurants, we’ll say something about buffalo pies with gravy on the verandah of the camp cafeteria—or, only on the most special occasions, Sunday prix-fixe menus in the tourist restaurant: impala steaks, stuffed guinea fowl.
Not a single thing is strange or different to us. Once a month or so, on a Saturday morning, Lisa, David, and I, and our cousins Lorna and Neil, clamber on the back of a bakkie, a pickup truck. We ride down rutted gravel firebreaks through red bush scrub into rhino territory and stop by dried dung heaps. Here, we clamber out in a hurry—“Last one there is a rotten old maid!” We gather whole armfuls of rhino dung, which smells of dry leaves and grass and has the consistency of caked dirt. As the morning passes the pile of dung on the back of the truck grows higher, until at last the five of us sit like kings and queens on our throne of feces, pointing at the ridges, kopjes, and coves of our domain—the green marulas and the dry brown mud pans. Back home, we help spread the excrement in our parents’ flower beds, as fertilizer. Surely this isn’t exotic? Three or so years ago, when our family still lived in Durban—this was when Daddy still worked as a computer programmer for the company in the skyscraper and I attended a suburban convent—I remember we were always picking up dog pooh in plastic bags.
True, that wasn’t for fertilizer: “The people were supposed to pick up after themselves,” Mommy always says when she talks about that time. And she shudders.
But now, on weekday afternoons, when we kids spot a giant monitor lizard, for fun we corner it against the house wall. Monitor lizards, which we call lekkewaans, are reptiles big ...
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