RIONA JUDGE MCORMACK
‘Backburn’


JACOB HENRY wakes before first light on the morning of the burn. In the darkened hallway his father is shuffling blindly, knocking against the carved hatstand and its many cruel, waiting legs. Jacob has been dreaming of water, or a dry lake, and something swift – a sharpened line of birds, a sudden arrowing – passing over. It slips from him even as he reaches for it. 
    In the hallway there is the trembling of glassware, the soft thock of a limb against hardwood. ‘What for?’ Liesl says beside him in a clear voice. The thinning braid of his wife’s hair slides across the pillow and then is still. 
    Water, Jacob decides. The dream had been of water, stretching glassy and thin to the horizon. In this part of the Cape there is no such sight. He pulls the counterpane from the bed and hangs it about his shoulders, the cotton soft from use. Liesl had worked it during a long winter pregnancy in the first years of their marriage – on Benjamin, he thinks, but cannot be sure. The winters had been harder then. But also easier. 
    In the doorway, Jacob pauses. His father is quarrelling with the hatstand. Jacob can hear the words now – fokkenfokkenfokken – quiet and venomous. They are not coming from the man but from somewhere else. 
    ‘Pa,’ Jacob says, standing chilled in his underclothes. He pulls the counterpane closer. 
    ‘Carrying on! All hours... dare they!’ 
    ‘Pa,’ Jacob tries again. ‘Harold.’ 
    His father turns, a thread of saliva hanging from his chin. ‘I won’t be forced out! They’ll never – keep it tight!’ 
    ‘Yes, pa.’
    ‘Outrage! Stinking creeping!’
    ‘Yes, pa.’
    His father blinks, unsure. He takes a step toward Jacob. ‘It’s out, Danny? You’re sure?’ 
    Danny is not here, in this house. He has not been for thirty years, but Jacob says only, ‘All out.’ He puts a hand to the small of his father’s back and feels Harold tense against him, then relax. A faint trembling comes through his palm. ‘Come, pa. Come on back.’ 
    ‘Boss Jacob?’ says a soft voice in the dark. Fortunate, the housemaid, has entered unheard. 
    ‘We’re fine,’ Jacob says. ‘Aren’t we, pa?’ 
    His father turns sly then, one hand reaching for Jacob. ‘Fine, fine.’
    Fortunate turns heavily on her broken-down ankles, back into the dark. Only then does Harold let himself be led to his room, where the rank stench of urine waits, heavy and acrid. Jacob seats him in the yellowwood nursing chair that had formed part of his mother’s dowry and begins to strip the sheets, saying over and over, in a low voice, not to worry, now, not to worry.

 

In the bedroom Liesl is lying as she was, the first of the morning’s light on her open eyes. ‘Wind is up,’ she says, as he takes a pair of folded pants and a work shirt from the dresser. 
    ‘It’ll blow itself out.’ Jacob sits heavily on the bed and bends to find his boots.
    ‘And if it doesn’t?’
    ‘We’re late already. It must burn.’ He concentrates on the laces. ‘Why has she a key?’ 
    ‘To help with pa.’ 
    ‘I don’t want him to suffer that. She’s too heavy now, anyway. What is she eating?’ 
    Liesl stretches, the joints of her shoulders popping. ‘She’s carrying.’     
    Jacob looks up sharply – ‘By who?’ – but his wife has turned away from him, towards the window and the coming day. Nothing to be gained by pushing her; she has her secrets, even now. What a strange thought, this, watching the light on the soft, fleshy lobe of her ear. That you can seed a brace of grown children together and not know a quarter part of the other’s thoughts. 
    He leans across the bed and bites her, softly, on the shoulder. His wife twists away in surprise. ‘Off, you devil,’ she says, but Jacob can hear the smile in her voice. ‘You’re as bad now as you were as a boy.’ 
    ‘Worse,’ he says. Her skin is sleep-warm and she smells as she always does: of talc and cold-cream, and something all her own, something sweet-sour and animal that makes him want to return to bed. Reluctantly, he stands and stamps each booted foot in turn. 
    ‘I’ll make up some tea, for later,’ Liesl says. ‘How many’s expected?’ 
    ‘Our boys, and then two or three from Hennie’s place. Your sister’s people.’ Jacob pauses, working at the inside of one cheek. ‘Twelve? Maybe.’ 
    ‘It’s enough.’ 
    ‘It’s barely enough,’ he says, and is sorry to have spoken aloud. It is a frustration to her that she cannot join them. But Dr Goosen had been adamant. Tie that woman down, if necessary. A fall like that is not nothing. Jacob had heard the unspoken second clause, swallowed just in time: at her age. He had almost laughed. Liesl, who tended the sheds and birthed the lambs, and ran unflagging from daybreak to nightfall? But Riaan Goosen had not met his eyes and Jacob had noticed, then, how very young the good doctor was. How a woman like Liesl might look through different eyes. 
    He is at the door when she says, ‘Jacob.’ 
    She is sitting up, her braid falling forward over one shoulder. He can see it in the pause before she opens her mouth, how carefully the words are shaped.
    ‘He doesn’t mean it. You do know that? He’s confused.’ 
    It takes him a moment to realise she means his father. ‘I know.’ 
    ‘It’s the illness. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.’
    ‘I know.’
    She gives him a tight smile. ‘Alright then,’ she says. ‘Alright.’ 


The day outside is chill and clear, the western end of the valley warm with dawn light. Jacob lets the Tata’s engine run while old Moses, his head boy, collects the old feed pails and stacks them in the back, then settles there himself. 
    ‘Wind today, boss,’ Moses grunts through the cab’s open back-window. 
    ‘Not you too.’ 
    When they have taken the first turn of the fences and checked that the rest of the boys are up, he sets Moses to releasing the ewes. Jacob had put in the sheds himself when the thieving began. The farm had been losing two or three head a week, a steady bleed. He had asked, but no-one had seen a thing. 
    Tshuk, tshuk, calls Moses, flicking a long switch at the sheep. The other boys are at the second gate, heading off an escape, pushing the lead ewes on and through into the rye pasture. 
    Jacob watches, running a thumb across the screen of his Nokia, where the fire index shows green. Sometimes he misses the calling, coming at first light on the old rotary dial in the kitchen, a chain running right through the valley. Warden thinks it’ll be a brisk one. Quiet up here on the ridge. Fire out by Alice, put the burn on hold. But then the links on either side have long been broken, the Whytebank farmhold turned over to horses, the Vosters sold out and moved to King William’s Town. 
    ‘Come,’ he says to Thomas, the new boy. ‘There’s the break lines to check.’ 
    Up on the koppie the gauge shows 3mm during the night. Jacob grunts, pleased. He turns back to Thomas, waiting silently by the Tata, and whistles for his attention. 
    ‘Here and here, clear that out.’ Some of the frost-struck grasses have turned over, heaping up along the firebreak, brittle and dry as tinder. ‘Get it all out before the burn.’ 
    At nine, the bell calls them in. Liesl had it mounted by the back steps when she first came to the Henry farmstead, when it was his parents’ house still and he had hardly slept for wanting her. ‘To keep you in line,’ she had teased. Now Jacob cannot imagine a day not marked by the ringing of the bell, coming faint across the fields. 
    He drinks bitter coffee standing at the kitchen counter. Liesl has taken a tray out to the boys, heavy with sugar and milk; Moses has a sweet tooth for a man of his age. When he had first arrived at the farm, a worm-ridden child of eight, Jacob’s father could circle a thumb and forefinger around Moses’ thigh. It was for this he was named Moses. All before Jacob himself was born, but the story was often repeated. Found him on our doorstep, Jacob’s father would say. All he was missing was the basket. 
    From where Jacob stands, he can see his father out in the house-garden, watering early cabbages. It is cold out there. He wants to call his father in, to the humming oven and the good, warm smell of rusks baking, thick with nuts. But this would be seen as fussing, an unforgiveable thing. 
    His pocket buzzes; Hennie, checking in. ‘My boys have the bakkie filled. Must we bring the hoes?’ 
    ‘Just beaters, if you have. We’ve got plenty hoes here.’ 
    ‘And you’re sure about today?’
    ‘Index’s green.’
    ‘Index se moer, Jacob. You sure?’ 
    It has been a hard, dry winter. Frost had set in early, and the wind has been toying with them all season; getting up without notice, changing on the hour. The one good burning day had come upon them too soon after the rains – the Tata down with a dead battery, Moses at a funeral with his people in Natal. That had been a month ago, and still the sourveld brush on the koppie stands, thick and inedible. 
    ‘Could do it early,’ Hennie presses. ‘While it’s cool.’ 
    The Henry farm has always burnt in late evening, the better to see the embers. Hennie knows this, knows the answer, asks anyway. 
    ‘We start at three,’ Jacob says. ‘Done by seven. Liesl will have something for your boys.’ 
    ‘Ja, no, fine.’ Down the line comes a long sigh. Jacob can picture Hennie pinching the bridge of his nose, hat pushed back over his sun-reddened forehead.
    ‘Tried talking to those trout people last week. Clueless, I’m telling you.    
    Drying up all along the ridge, anyone with eyes can see. The Adelaide warden must come and put some sense into them.’ 
    ‘Citypeople.’ Jacob says it run together, like a swearword. ‘Let’s just hope they don’t try burning it on their own.’ 
    The sign had gone up two months ago at the turn-off to Andre Vorster’s old plot. Paradise Trout Lodge, it read. There had been people in and out all that winter: plumbers from Cathcart and a decorating outfit from East London. The farmhouse had been timbered over, horses stabled in the old cowsheds. For trail riding, the new owner explained, when he turned up at the Whytebank stud to make an offer on a pair of geldings. Apparently city people were crazy for it. Appaloosa aren’t trail horses, Katie Drew had told him with a straight face, and given him the number of a riding school in Alice. 
    Jacob is not surprised the trout people have refused to help. The Vorsters had been hard people, but they understood how things worked. It is the same reason the remaining families in the valley will come, because they know: fire keeps to no boundary, none at all. 
    At midday, the wind drops, then dies flat.

 

Liesl’s brother, Alwin, arrives at three, Hennie a little later. They stand together in the dining room – Alwin and his two sons, Hennie and his eldest girl, Danika – while the teams eat out in the yard, hunkered down against the wall. Jacob counts eleven in all. There are less, every year. 
    Liesl has laid them a plate of thick sandwiches, cut from a loaf baked that morning. ‘A working tea,’ she smiles, coming in with the teapot. She has changed from her work wear into a dress he loves, scoop-necked and sprigged with flowers, bought in Alice last year with the first of the lambing money. Her dragging leg is hardly noticeable beneath the fall of cloth.     
    ‘How’s the old skellum?’ Hennie asks, one sandwich tucked fatly in his cheek, another already in his hand. He points with the sandwich towards the yard. ‘Your Moses. Still going?’ 
    Jacob swallows his tea. ‘That one’ll be going long after I’m gone.’ 
    ‘I bet, I bet. Got sense, that one. Got a nice number here, don’t want to give it up.’ Hennie grins around at the others, winking. ‘Still likes his bottle, ja?’ 
    Jacob does not look at Hennie as he sets his cup down, a silence opening between them. ‘Moses is a good man.’ He pauses. ‘He hasn’t touched a drink in years.’ 
    ‘Not since the child died,’ Liesl adds, quietly. They had all forgotten her presence. 
    Hennie has the grace to look abashed. Alwin’s sons shift uneasily; Alwin coughs. ‘Time,’ he says, flipping the channel open on his walkie-talkie. Static fills the room. ‘Evening’s getting on.’ 
    Hennie whistles a low note and the men outside get to their feet, stretching limbs, shouldering knapsacks. Danika tips her head towards the bakkie with its load of water; her father nods. With one sharp look she has rounded up her two boys and hopped into the cab, starting the engine smoothly. Four winters past, she had come back from an office job to work the beef side of her father’s farm. Jacob likes the girl, likes her easy way with silence. 
    ‘You can take pa up top,’ she says to Jacob. ‘I’ll get out to the back lines, get the hose ready.’ 
    Jacob has seen his own children’s eyes when they return to the valley, how they look at the tin labourer’s cabins and the muddied hand-pumps that cake with ice in the cold months. 
    ‘Sharp girl, Dani,’ he tells Hennie, watching the bakkie bump away over the rutted drive. ‘Lucky to have her.’ 
    ‘Ja.’ Hennie nods, slowly. ‘Ja.’ He says it as though it is nothing; both men know it is not. 
    Of all the children, Jacob had thought Benjamin might stay. As a boy he had taken easily to the fields and the open skies; had slept in the straw pens during lambing and did not look away from the slippery sacs and mucus, did not cry over the small, still deaths that come daily on a farm. But Ben had settled in Cape Town, an eleven-hour drive through the night from his childhood home. His last visit had come to angry words. ‘Look at you,’ Ben had said. ‘Still living out here like the bad old days. Still calling grown men your boys.’ 
    ‘Never to their faces,’ Jacob had said, and it was then that his son turned on his heel and left. Jacob had grown up in this house with the hatstand and the dark-fronted teak dresser and the nursing chair, everything in its place. He had been raised watching his father whip those boys. There are no beatings on the Henry farm now, but Benjamin would see little credit in that.

 

On the crest of the koppie they set the backfires. Four, each a crossed bundle of kindling lit with a drip-torch, burning downhill and outwards. 
    ‘Slowly does it,’ Jacob says the words his own father had used each year. ‘Nice and slowly does it.’ In the still of the evening the fires burn low and tame, licking along the brush, popping dry branches. The men move downslope a pace at a time. Two of the boys follow behind with the sprays, wetting the burned grasses down, kicking open up stumps and turning over logs. In the waning light it is easy to pick out the embers and beat them dead. 
    When they have cleared ten paces Jacob stops, stretching out his back. Then he straightens fully. ‘Who’s that? What damned idiot is that?’ Beyond the curve of the hill a flame wavers. Jacob fishes the walkie-talkie from his pocket, clumsy with anger. ‘Who’s set that headfire? I haven’t called it yet.’ 
    ‘Ja-cob?’ Alwin cuts in and out through the static. ‘... not us. In position... the Eastern break.’ 
    Jacob squints downhill. He thinks of the new boy, Thomas, tries to recall where he last set eyes on him. And remembers his first impression, when Moses had brought Thomas for inspection at the onset of winter: a large man with a curiously still, set face, as though closed inwards upon a thought. 
    ‘Someone got too excited, got carried away.’ Hennie has joined them, swiping a forearm across his forehead. ‘What is it with blacks and fire? Jislaaik, always one thing or another.’ His own head boy, a beater limp against his side, grins shamefacedly. 
    There is a voice raised in the near-dark. Old Moses, feet failing him among the rocks, is pushing forward. And then Jacob feels it across his face – just a sigh in his good ear, warm like breath. 
    ‘Wind, boss.’ Moses is wheezing. ‘Wind is up.’
    The look on Jacob’s face makes him step back a pace. ‘That your boy down there?’ 
    Moses hunches down upon himself, eyes to the ground. He makes a sound: aiie. This is a sound Jacob has heard many times. It means yes, and no. It means the question is likely to cause embarrassment, and would be better left unasked. 
    ‘Is it?’ Jacob presses.
    Moses gives an uncomfortable half-laugh. ‘Could be, boss.’ 
    ‘Come. Come.’ Jacob says it hard, like the Afrikaans: Kom. Hennie and his team stand quiet, watching. 
    Moses comes to him sideways, head tucked into him shoulders like an old turtle. Loud enough for the others to hear, Jacob says: ‘Breathe on me.’ 
    Moses’ face empties of feeling. It is a sudden thing, this absence. His eyes fix elsewhere, a point thirty paces beyond Jacob’s shoulder. ‘Yes, boss.’ His breath is sweetish, the smell of sugared coffee and teeth that need pulling. But no sour ferment of alcohol. 
    Jacob spits, ash on his tongue. He looks back at the unmanned flame. Down there, the land flattens and runs away through the neighbouring stand of grassland, ahead of the wind that is now coming strong. ‘Close it up!’ he shouts, suddenly hoarse. 
    He can see a spot fire, two, downwind from the fireline, across the break. They falter, then the wind comes and takes them and they are racing through the lower stand at the height of a man. 
    ‘It’s jumped,’ he says, and Hennie is already speaking quickly on his phone in Afrikaans: Get the bakkie down there, Dani. Wet everything. 
    Alwin and his sons are coming over the koppie, their own backfires doused. Downhill, a stump pops. Sparks flare and scatter. 
    Runaway! The cry goes up and down the line. Runaway! 
    The paper plantations run all along the far side of the Elandsberg ridge, in a thick band towards Stutterheim. No one can afford for this to reach them. Jacob takes a fistful of Hennie’s shirt. ‘Get ahead of it. Start a backburn on the lower firebreak, against the road, burn out all the fuel. Take Dani and go. Go.’ 
    Then Jacob runs. A beater in hand, downslope, towards the headfire. 
    He does not know how the next hours pass. They beat, and beat, denying the fire room to turn. Black moths of ash land on their faces, catch in their mouths. The air is thick with them. They cough, and beat, and cough. Jacob’s shoulders ache and still he beats. On and on, until there is nothing but the dark and the flames and the rising and falling of their arms. When Hennie’s backfire reaches them the teams pitch forward in relief, hands on their knees, hacking up smoke and ash, and the two fronts meet and flare upwards, brief and brilliant, before dying back. But the wind is blowing hard now, scattering sparks over the breaks, embers catching here, there, and still they beat. 
    In those lost hours, Jacob imagines Benjamin as a shadow at his side. He moves as he did as a young boy, easy in his own strength, matching his father swing for swing. Slowly does it, Jacob says. Slowly does it. They breathe together in the ashy dark. When Jacob looks up a time later and finds himself alone, it is a keener loneliness than he thought possible. And still the fire burns. 
    At eleven, a light rain begins to fall. Like a blessing, like a sweet mercy. 
    Jacob falls to his knees where he stands. He has lost all sense of the others, or where they might be. He turns his face to the rain and lets it run right through him. 
    In the distance, from the direction of the farm, the bell begins to ring. 
    ‘Liesl,’ he says aloud. Her hands, the clean brightness of the kitchen – it comes to him like a pain, like his schooldays walking home across the hills and hearing the Villiers twins ahead of him in the closing dark, hand in hand, singing hymns to themselves, for no one but themselves. If he were still a churchman, he knows that this would be his prayer: Liesl. 
    
There is a snapping that is not the burnt-out fire. Jacob wipes a filthied sleeve across his mouth and feels in his back pocket for the torch. Ahead, in the smoking stubble, something is moving. A man’s shadow detaches itself from the surrounding black. 
    ‘Moses,’ Jacob says, relieved. He allows himself a small laugh. 
    Moses has come to the edge of his torchlight and stands there now, unmoving. In his hand is the long haft of the beater. 
    There is something about the way he holds himself. It does a strange thing to the air around, as though there is less of it. 
    ‘Moses,’ Jacob says again, uncertain. 
    The two men are still. Around them is the hissing of the burnt grasses settling. Then Moses takes a step forward. Jacob flinches. 
    Moses’ teeth show white in the dark. Over the fields, the ringing of the bell comes again. They both know now: Jacob had feared the blow that did not come. And more: he had felt he would deserve it.

 

Jacob wakes before first light, his father stumbling again in the hallway. 
    Danny, calls the old man, and Jacob lies in bed and tells himself it does not matter that it is always Danny who is called for, when he, Jacob, is here. Danny – calling out for the son who left, not the one who stayed. 
    He could ring Benjamin and tell him: perhaps it is time they sell up. Turn the farm over to the government, to the labourers, leave them have it. Leave them have it all. He does not want to check on Moses, afraid he might find the one room of the hut bare of any belongings. 
    In late morning, when the light has shown itself through the smoke, Jacob finds a kiewietjie’s nest in the charred stubble. The fire always takes something with it – a genet or puff adder, one year a porcupine, larger than anyone remembered seeing in the valley, curled under and blackened, even the white bands of the quills scorched black. 
    That was the winter they found Moses’ youngest child curled up against the hot-water pipes in the farmhouse roof. The girl had crawled in there for warmth, had fallen asleep with the hatch closed. She had suffocated while they searched the farm for her. Sorry boss, Moses said when they brought her to him, a dazed look on his face. Sorry, boss. The child had felt strangely light in Jacob’s arms, like the husk of a beetle dried in the winter sun. 
    The nest, he sees now, has pulled in upon itself as it burned. The eggs are stuck fast. There are three, grey-black and cooked through. All that morning he hears the kiewietjie crying keeweet, keeweet, relentless in her grief, and though it is not he that has taken her children Jacob feels an urge to go out there and show himself, to hold her quiet while he strokes the soft length of her neck, and pulls.