THE BOOKSELLER: Griffin Shea – Bridge Books

Griffin Shea

Griffin Shea is the founder of Bridge Books, which recently opened in Joburg’s CBD. A retail store with a thoughtfully edited selection of predominantly African titles (both new and secondhand), Bridge Books also sells to the inner-city’s street booksellers.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

I’m loving Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night. It’s her retelling of her grandmother’s experiences as a child during the Anglo-Zulu war, and the story is part of the of amazing work that South Africa as a whole is undertaking in understanding history from more points of view.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

Actually, not a single book has been stolen yet. I think this is partly because we run a “pay it forward” scheme, where customers buy books to give away to others. Also, if anyone asks, I’ll loan them a book for a R20 deposit if they promise to write a review.

Once someone did lift a copy of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like from a pop-up we ran in Soweto on Youth Day. But when we asked if anyone had seen it, he returned it the next day. He’d thought we were giving away the books as part of the Youth Day events.

The biggest seller of the past year?

I Write What I Like, by Steve Biko, which sells consistently week after week, on both the retail and the wholesale side. We run a wholesale trade to connect small booksellers (even smaller than us!) with publishers so they can get new books, and Biko is always in demand.

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one, only because I did a lot of reading for my PhD work at Wits, which focuses on South African young adult novels. Unfortunately, that means I read a shocking number of heavy-handed, preachy books that we inflict on our young people. Also, of course, several real gems. But it’s no wonder young readers gravitate toward “adult” books if they have any passion for reading at all. The books aimed at their age bracket often talk down at them from a very high pulpit.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith. Like the best young adult books, it explores themes too big for most adult fiction: the nature of evil, the legacy of trauma, the difficulty of change, the hidden layers of meaning in everyday places. Think The Secret Garden or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set on Long Street in Cape Town.

The last thing you read that made you cry?

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher. The Star Wars films leave me cold, but when the latest one came out and the world was awash in commercials and merchandise, I decided to read Carrie Fisher. I laughed so hard, tears squirted out of my nose too.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

A couple people have asked for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. But I can’t carry it. He’s the antithesis of everything Bridge Books is trying to do. And honestly, even the ghost writer Tony Schwartz has renounced it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

This building was originally Barclays headquarters for South Africa. The vault is still downstairs. Also, we have a great roof space for readings under the stars.

The three writers you admire the most?

Toni Morrisson, whose books often explore love and its boundaries. She’s shaped the way I think about human relationships, and the reasons we treat each other the ways that we do.

Assia Djebar, who writes about the ways we can seek freedom, including through storytelling. She also introduced me to the idea of the Bechdel Test, before that phrase was widely applied to the idea.

Mark Twain. Did you know he’s really funny? I’ve been reading Huckleberry Finn out loud to my 11-year-old son, and it’s funnier, sharper and actually quite a lot darker than I remember it being.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Geometry.

Running a bookstore is a lot like Scrabble: it’s a math game masquerading as a word game.

Our indoor shop space is only 60 square metres. We have 12 bookcases. The limits of that geometry and its implications for which books we can carry continue to confound me.

Describe your archetypal customer.

Twenty-something, smart, creative, professional. Oh, and black.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The readers who come shopping, or simply visiting. I meet so many new people every day, and I love hearing their stories and the stories they’re looking for.

And the worst part?

You open a bookstore thinking it’s going to create this glorious life of the mind. And that’s true, but frankly it’s just as much about quads and glutes. There’s a lot of carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs.

Read more about Bridge Books over on 2Summers and in the Mail & Guardian.

FICTION: If you go down to the woods | Part 4

BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN

Phone

In order to produce werewolves in your own family, it is not enough to resemble a wolf, or to live like a wolf …

Yissis, even Lucky throws us out now man, says Jegs, bumping into me as we go down past the mall.

Ja, but you were causing kak, and anyway it’s five in the morning, so what you expect, man?

I stop and tie my shoelace and when I stand up I get on Jegs’s other side without him even spotting. He has puke on the left side of his hoodie that I can see and smell every time I look at him.

Ja, but still man, how ’bout some loyalty?

It’s dark still and there’s no way the ol’ lady is gonna let us in, so no point going home. She’s most probably fucked anyway. Right at the edge of my eyes is a little jumping light, like some arsehole is flicking a torch at me. I feel my heart, like it’s changing gear. My lungs burn in the cold. I cough and I can taste blood.

Jegs is kicking little stones into the road and dragging his feet. Dude, he says, that chick that came in last night, is that Lucky’s side piece? Man, she was nice. Hey, maybe that’s why he threw us out? He had a fokken hardon under the bar so he had to gooi us out fast? You think that’s it, hey?

I dunno Jegsie, it was late man, the oke wanted to split.

My fingertips have started that little irritating jumping, like I’m holding a wet cord and getting electric shocks. And it’s as if mud is coming up into my chest so I feel I’m gonna choke, maybe even spit actual blood.

Hey we could do the corner near Garden City, dude, some rich ou on his way to work with a cell phone on his ear.

Jegs is the only oke I know who still says dude.

Who’s he gonna be speaking to at five in the morning? Plus you know what happened to Uysie last time he did that corner? Shadrack and his mates work that one, and Uysie is gonna do some serious weeks in hospital for that fokken little Nokia. They caught him up behind the Hindu place and beat the crap out of him. So bear that in mind oke.

Ok then so, so, what, Emmarentia, hey?

No way man, they have that one too.

Ja but, like right now man, those okes are nowhere. It’s fokken freezing and dark out here, so no way they heading to the park to steal a phone off some tannie now.

He had a point.

Smash will take a phone, won’t he, or we could, we could go to Jeppe?

Can’t do Jeppe, the okes will see us coming a mile off with a phone and wanna know which corner we did. I wanna avoid that type of thing. But ja, we could do it. Except, who’s walking dogs now?

You know these crazy aunties, man. The little brakkie starts whining at four ay em and she’s getting out of bed and heading to the park in her nighties. Plus, by the time we get there it’s not so dark anymore, and we get there now there’s no car guard so he can’t give anyone a headsup.

Ja, he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone if he wasn’t there, I say, but it goes straight over Jegs’s thick head.

The stuff is up in my ribs, like I ate a bucket of tar and now I’m gonna drown in it. I try to work it back in, shifting my shoulders up and down to keep moving, and I breathe deep. It’s seriously unpleasant here, so an old lady in the park is starting to sound like an option. They all have iPhones now. That’s enough for a hit if Smash will take it off us, which there’s no reason to think he won’t. Anyway, we’re halfway there already, picking up the pace down Beyers past the homeless guys on the left under the tree. Wankers think we can’t see them buried under that cardboard, but there’s legs and arms sticking out all over the place. Okes could be dead in this cold, nobody would know for a whole day.

Ja, okay Jegsie, let’s do it.

Hey, dude, what’s got into Shaun, man, he’s out of it totally these days, and I don’t even think it’s the shit.

Shaun is fucked. His old lady made him do a test and he’s positive, so he’s pissed. Tried to pick up someone at Lucky’s last week but he’s so skeletal a chick would have to be suicidal.

Bummer man.

Jegs is also the only oke I know who says bummer.

Ou’s dead in a month, I say.

Jegsie goes quiet for about fifty metres and then he starts giggling. Works himself up into a nice dik laugh until he’s half falling over.

What the fuck? What’s so fucking hilarious?

He can’t even get an answer out he’s so amused with himself and he starts tripping over his own feet, stepping off the path into the road. Next thing there’s a guy yelling from behind us and before we know what’s what, he’s on us and there’s fucking recycling stuff all over the road. Jegs is on his back, and the guy is seriously pissed. He pulls his balaclava half up his face and starts to shout something in French, or Zambian, or whatever. I see his mouth going, and everything slows down, like it’s all in slow motion, except my heart rate is out of control, in the red.

I snap back into it when I hear some other guys start to yell as well, and when I turn to look back up Beyers they’re headed straight for us, three in row, standing on their trolleys balls to the wall, and Jegs is still on the grass giggling like a zombie. Plastic and shit everywhere, and the guy’s big canvas bag’s off the edge of the cart half in the road and cars are coming up Beyers straight towards us.

I bend over and grab Jegs’s jacket so he stops giggling and looks up at me.

Oke, we are fucking meat if we don’t get out of here now, I tell him.

He turns his head and I see the crusty puke on his hoodie.

Yissis man, these okes are pissed dude.

Ja, no kidding you fucking poes, let’s go man.

I yank him to his feet and we start running, straight down the hill. It’s about a hundred metres to the corner and we round it going ninety kays, burning rubber, the Zambians yelling behind us, but they haven’t bothered to chase. We run between two cars at the light and head for the little zig-zag gate in the fence. I half drag Jegs through it and then we’re in the park, in the dark, so we stop running. He bends over and laughs. Fuuuck, man that was mal, he says.

We head deeper into the woods, next to the stream and round the bottom of the hill that goes up to the soccer fields. There are big trees here, and we sit down and chill for a bit. Except I’m not chilling, I’m speeding up and those little jumpy shocks are starting to bounce back against my brain and it’s getting seriously nasty.

So we’re there in the half pitch dark, no dog walkers anywhere, but no other people either, so we just lie on the leaves for a while, listening to the cars coming up Beyers. There’s a stone under me and I remember that fancy doctor with his cheap lube, fucking me like he’s gonna pass out if he doesn’t come now, and I’m feeling it like a sword up the arse. But it was decent money so I just held on and flew on his coke while he did his thing. No going back after a point.

Jegs is snoring. Unbelievable. He’s also the only oke I know can fall asleep taking a dump. I listen to him for a while and then I hear it, a whistle, coming from the field. I feel the cold sweat that comes up always between my shoulder blades before I do it, every time, no matter how clearly I plan the get-out-of-jail-free route. Jegsie’s a doos too, so the sweat is like my body knowing he’s going to fuck up. I kick his shin.

Jegs, someone’s coming.

He wakes and sits up fast, pulling his hoodie around his ears. Serious, dude, where, which side?

I point across the little bridge straight ahead of us and then yank him back behind a big tree.

Okay, what’s the plan man? he asks, getting excited.

Okay, so we check out the dogs first, see what’s what, and then as she comes around this end, past the end of the bridge, we jump her.

Jegs pulls his blade out. Lekker, I’m on it. He’s hopping from foot to foot.

We wait. I take a chance and look around the tree. She’s coming up towards the bridge, walking close to the water, walking fast. Black pants, running shoes, little baggie around the waist, which is probably where the phone is. I look for a dog and there it is, little black and white one, Jack Russell type, but really small. Okay, no sweat, one clean kick and the dog is sorted. Nobody else around.

Okay Jegs, ten seconds man. Hold tight. I hear him breathe and then he’s out from behind the tree, rushing the woman like he’s fucking Schwarzenegger, and the little dog goes ballistic.

I run up behind him and hear him say to her, Okay, lady, what you got? Give it to us now. And he’s waving his knife around like there are fifty ninjas attacking.

And then I see it. Bull terrier built like my uncle’s towtruck, coming round the stone wall of the bridge. He sees us and picks up his pace. Funny thing is, the woman grabs him as he gets to her, which is weird because he was onto us, coming at us so fast Jegsie wouldn’t have had time to aim the knife anywhere. The little dog is still going bos, barking at Jegs and he’s dancing around trying to keep it off his ankles. This is a fuck up.

The woman grips the big dog, but his huge jaw is open and he’s barking and growling. She holds him tight around the neck, kneeling next to him and talking to him. Then, get this, she fucking speaks to us.

Guys, I think you should back off, okay? she says.

Jesus this is a fucking world-class hold up. But I don’t really have much to say to that, so I grab at Jegsie’s jacket and pull him back towards the gate.

Let’s duck man.

The little shocks are making me see weird colours and black spots bouncing around in my eyes and I want to hit them away like mozzies.

But Jegs has got the Jack Russell on his foot and he’s kicking to try get it off and the woman yells, Mouse, Mouse, come here. Which is priceless. Jegsie has a dog called Mouse on his ankle, with little jaws and teeth and he’s waving that knife around, slicing at everything but the dog, and the woman, chilled as a dominie, is holding that bully with all her strength to keep him off us.

Yissis.

The little scene is starting to feel like slow motion again, like it’s all a seriously bad idea, when a guy rounds the corner at the other end of the bridge, running, with a fucking pit bull on a leash. I don’t think this oke had seen what was going down but as soon as he turns the corner he starts yelling. I reach for Jegs and ruk him back through the leaves towards the gate and of course he falls on his arse and the little dog is on him, snarling and snapping at him like it’s gonna take his head clean off, and he’s yelling, screaming like a chick.

It’s all slowing down now in my head and I’m trying to hold it together, and this is what goes down. The bully sees the pit bull and he makes a break from the woman. Like a bullet he’s after the other dog, and before he knows what’s hit him, the big oke is flat on his back, holding onto his leash for dear life, with a crazy pit bull on the other end pulling him towards the bully. The Jack Russell hears this and lets go of Jegsie, turns around and heads for the dogfight. And for some reason, I stop. I can’t miss this. Jegs is through the gate and gone, heading up the road as fast as he can, calling me as he runs. I step behind a big tree, half in the dark, and watch this little scene happen.

The woman is up and running, yelling at her dog who is now seriously grappling the pit bull. She doesn’t stop when she gets to them but takes a dive, right into the middle of the two dogs and it’s just kak en hare, and she grabs the bully around the back legs, and starts pulling him backwards. She’s on the ground with him, trying to get him out of there and the man, big guy with an accent, is backing up on the ground, on his gat with the pit bull, yelling. They finally get away from each other and the guy stands up, grabs the dog’s collar and ruks him hard. The woman has a leash on the bully now and she starts apologising to the oke. He’s calmed down now and he’s cool and they start worrying about the dogs.

Your dog okay? she asks.

Yeah, yours?

Yes. Did you see those two guys?

Yeah, were you being mugged?

Seriously oke? Did you not see Jegsie’s blade flashing? I move deeper behind the tree and wait for them to move off because, fucking amazing, the guy dropped his phone when he went down with the pit bull. It came flying out of one of those back pockets that cycling jackets have, spinning up like a beautiful ninja star into the beams of light from the traffic on Beyers and landing in the dead leaves behind him. And the oke has no idea. So I just stand there and wait. They head off down the path, the woman in front dragging the bully who wants to get at the pit bull but she yanks him hard so he has to turn and walk. The oke is patting his dog’s head as he goes, feeling around its ears and under its jaw. Looking for blood I skiem.

It’s quiet now. The traffic is picking up and Jegsie’s gone. I focus on the black stuff crawling up my chest, try to make it go back down, till I wanna puke from trying to keep it together. And then I step out from behind the tree and walk towards where I saw the phone drop. It’s there, half buried in the leaves, shining at me like a diamond. iPhone 5. Fucking brilliant. Smash will give me a couple hundred. I hold down the power switch till it goes off, so that the guy can’t find me on his computer or his GPS or whatever when he gets home. I step through the gate, look both ways. Jegs is about a hundred paces off, waiting for me. Dick head. I turn left onto Judith and start towards him. The time on the phone before it powered off said oh six-twenty. Jegs is hopping up and down on one leg, slapping his thigh, starting that stupid lag again. I feel the cool of the phone in my hand, and slide it into my back pocket just before I get to him.

This is the final part of If you go down to the woods. Read the rest of the story:

All of the stories’ epigraphs are from A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

FICTION: If you go down to the woods | Part 3

BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN

Fence

Eating bread and drinking wine are interminglings of bodies.

I flip the cell phone over to check the time. It flares its light at me. Five-ten. I’m awake but it’s dark and too cold to get up, so I roll onto my back and lie still, listening to the dark, the sounds of just-before-morning. Parrot the cat jumps onto the bed so I slide my right leg out, feeling for the soft body with my thigh, and then sweep him off the edge so that he lands hard on the wooden floor. No feline delicacy there. If I don’t do this, he’ll edge forward to my shoulder and bat me on the nose with an open-clawed paw. I wait. Parrot complains loudly.

It seems hours later when I turn my head and see the shimmering phone, still there just beyond the pillow. I close my eyes again and rock from side to side, trying to summon sleep back. Parrot leaps onto the bed.

Finally I have no choice. Mouse and Morris are awake now and gearing up, pacing about on their hard nails, waiting for me to make a move. Five-twenty the face of the phone tells me, so I swing my legs off the bed and feel for my clothing with my foot. I slide the pile towards me in the dark and start to dress. Three-quarter leggings, socks, bra, t-shirt, green hoodie from yesterday. When I put it on, I pull the hood as low as I can against the cold, and then I sit for a moment, hearing the morning coming into the dark room. Parrot has gone down the hallway and is calling loudly for food. I lean forward and breathe slowly to ease myself into wakefulness.

When we get into the park it’s five-fifty, too early even for the car guard and most other walkers, or the pedestrian commuters who pass through on their way to work. I head for the woods. A short way into the gloom I suddenly break off the path on a whim and run up the steep slope, pumping my arms and heading for the fence that skirts the soccer fields. I can see my breath vaporising white in the cold air. The dogs hesitate, not sure of the reason for this deviation from our usual route, but then they follow, tearing after me, Morris panting loudly and drawing even as we get to the path. He looks pleased. I bend over to catch my breath and look at him upside-down. From this angle he looks like a shark with a large grin.

We head south along the path and I peer left through the fence and see the lengths of aluminium sprinkler pipes glinting with frost on the soccer pitch that seems grey in the half-light. The embankment drops away to my right, thick with seed-heavy blackjack. The dogs plunge suddenly back down through the weeds and leaves and root around at the bottom of the hill, following a trail—the smell of our own feet from yesterday, or maybe something more interesting. They are about thirty metres away but they keep pace with me and glance up every now and then to see that I am still there. We follow a parallel route deeper into the trees.

The man comes along the path towards me, his head down, as though he’s in thought. I realise with a small jolt that I’ve been half-expecting him, perhaps even looking out for him without really knowing it. We’ve passed each other every morning for about two weeks, in the woods or out on the field on the other side of the stream. The first time was at the extreme south end of the park, near the base of the giant graffitied bluegum. He was coming along from the north side, walking with a long stride across the frosted grass, no dog in sight. A lone exerciser in track pants and long-sleeved t-shirt. At these encounters, we greet in a perfunctory way and I detect in the plumped sound of the l in his hello an American accent. Urban walkers are minimally polite, exchanging a quick acknowledgement and then glancing past each other to check that our dogs have met and passed on without any fuss. Meeting in this context, we have no desire to speak to each other. We draw our privacy close around our bodies newly risen from the musky warmth of beds.

He sees me and by the quick turn of his head I know he’s looking for the dogs he has seen with me before. They are halfway up the slope. They’ve stopped and are looking up at us, but they go on, satisfied.

The man breaks his stride when he’s about five paces off, as though meaning to step to his left to let me pass. But then he stops. I keep going and when I get to him we stand looking at each other. In the soft moment that has opened up around us, I feel quite sure of what to do, though it has not occurred to me before now. I can see he is about to say something so I reach across and touch his hand, which is flattened against his thigh, the fingers pointing downwards. He has one foot off the path, in a clump of blackjacks. A sudden, vivid memory of plucking the slender burrs off school socks and trousers is immediately present and then gone. I lift my left hand and feel for the fence, hooking my middle finger through the diamond mesh next to the steel pole. I look across the soccer fields. When I move my head slightly to the right and back again the light from the sun just coming up over the clubhouse on the other side of the pitch is like a camera flash in my eyes. I do this for a moment, as though I am entirely alone. The dogs are out of sight at the bottom of the slope. They have gone to the water where the rocks offer a bridge to the other side. I hear Mouse barking at Morris and I imagine her, lying flat on the bank above the stream, arse in the air, stump of tail wagging, watching Morris who is trying to decide whether he should come out of the water. If he does she will lunge straight at him and the chase will be on. He’ll be gathering the energy now to plunge up over the lip of the bank and take off across the cold, hard grass with Mouse snapping at his sphincter.

The man doesn’t move, doesn’t pull away. He is waiting. So I close my whole hand around his and he balls it up into a soft fist and settles it into my palm. He waits. I dip my head to the right to feel the flash of light on my eyelids and as I do this I pull his hand to the base of my stomach, just above the wide seam of my pants below my hoodie and t-shirt and hold it against my skin. He opens his hand flat and waits.

I hold the hand and swivel to face the fence. When I stop, his hand is in the small of my back and now I can only just reach it, I reach to the small finger and then I drop my head forward onto the fence and shift my pelvis back towards him so that he knows. I feel him step back onto the path and move into me and he says something that I don’t catch.

Against my forehead I feel the diamond mesh of the fence. It will make an imprint I realise. I hold a pole with each hand. The steel is cold, like dry ice, the paint flaking. I open my legs slightly and wait for him. He is unhurried. He puts his left hand over mine on the fence pole and runs his right hand over the curve of my arse, taking my pants with it and I feel the cold air against my skin. He keeps the hand going, down to the warm envelope of flesh, and now he shifts his weight forward. I feel him move up into me, looking for a place to plant his feet firmly. He holds the pole through my hand to steady himself and under it I feel the cold of the steel press into my palm, where the fold of the thumb is.

His cock follows his hand, searching until it meets the soft resistance of skin and then he rotates slowly, weight going from one foot to the other so that he can push forward. He is being careful, feeling his way, finding where the resistance is and shifting slightly to look for a better angle, and then suddenly he is inside me and I feel a burst of pain, the sensation that seems to be hooked to my breath so that when he pushes into me I inhale sharply, my breath sucked in to meet him.

I fold my pelvis into him and we move together, finding a rhythm against the fence. His head comes down to my ear and he breathes heavily. I flatten up against him and feel the burning in my calves from the strain of holding myself to his moving body. His hands are folded over mine on the poles, gripping hard, squeezing my palms into the steel. I can feel him shift gear, his breath coming quicker and shallower and he moves hard up against me, so that I sense the desperation coming like a train down a tunnel forcing a huge warm pillow of air ahead of it that catches things up as it speeds by, papers and cigarette butts and empty cardboard cups.

 

The sun is bright through the trees now as I head back up Beyers. Mouse is watching me in the rearview mirror. The day is opening up. I get to the intersection and decide to turn left and take a long route home, skipping Main Road and bending through Emmarentia and Melville.

The light is green, but there’s a car coming from the front, so I wait. The indicator clicks. Mouse jumps up onto the back of the seat, tucking her rear legs delicately and balancing like a bird. The back of Morris’s rock-still head, which I look at for a long moment, is a hard-tender crown of bone under fur. Four men on recyling trolleys come around the bend up ahead, rushing towards the light, one foot extended off the fronts of their trollies to brake if the light turns red. One of them sees that I’m about to turn and he moves the trolley expertly so that it passes by me, inches from the window. The man is wearing a balaclava but it’s pushed back onto his forehead, bunched up above his eyes. As he comes abreast of the car he turns his head and looks at me, nodding almost imperceptibly in greeting—a slight uptilt of the head—as he flies by, the clattering sound of his trolley deafening us for a moment and then rolling away down the hill.

This is the third part of If you go down to the woods. Read the rest of the story:

FICTION: If you go down to the woods | Part 2

BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN

Slope

Sorcerers have always held the anomalous position, at the edge of the fields or woods. They haunt the fringes.

I step on it a little, edging over eighty down Beyers. It’s late to be walking, but we’ve missed two days in a row and Mouse and Morris are starting to annoy one another, so here we go, we can get in forty minutes, maybe, before the gates are closed for the night. Morris is standing, which is unusual, turning around restlessly in the back of the car. Maybe he needs to pee.

People are leaving when we get to the parking lot, shoving dogs into cars, paying the guard, heading home to the safety of houses. By the time we’re out of the car, leashes on, there are only four cars left. Morris stops at the dustbin, sniffs, lifts his leg. When we get beyond the gate, I slip the leashes off and Mouse is away, heading left, to the big field that runs down to the rowers’ dam. That’s her favourite route because the picnickers leave trash there on Sundays. But it’s mid-week and I want to go straight down the hill, where there are still a few people. I call her back and start running so that she’ll get excited and chase me. The trick doesn’t always work but this time she’s after me and I keep going till we’re almost at the dam and she’s latched on, snapping close to my heels.

Morris stops to defecate discretely under a bush. He’s good that way. Doesn’t just dump it in the middle of the path but finds a spot where nobody is likely to step on it. I pick it up anyway, weighing the pros and cons. A pile of shit under a bush where it will decompose after a couple of days, or a plastic bag with a warm steaming parcel in the dustbin and then to the city dump where it will be take seven years to degrade.

There are a few stragglers on the field, people I know only from the park, whose names I have never learned, though I know what their dogs are called. We are urban walkers, grateful for this open zone in the city to which we all hasten, as though our lives depended on it, at the beginning or the end of the day.

When we reach the dam, the sky is dark orange and blackening above the water. It’s suddenly cold. I turn south and head towards the woods, calculating as I go, rationalising my decision to head to that end of the park at this late hour. Two people with retrievers are coming out of the trees as we get there. I imagine they are the last. The dogs don’t hesitate so I plunge in with them. They are in front of me, on the path, heads down, Morris’s tail up, Mouse’s stump waggling happily. We head between the swamp cypresses along the concrete embankments of the spruit, into the pine and ash and oak, our American and European sentinels that have greened the city for a hundred years.

I tell myself that muggers, men waiting behind trees or bushes to jump me, won’t stick around at this hour because all the walkers are gone by now. Waste of time to wait around in the dark and the cold for a victim with not much on them but a bag of poo and a dog leash. Better to head to other likely spots in the suburbs for a bit of thieving and thugging. Then there’s Morris. He’s never been tested but I imagine he’ll come gamely to my defence. I have little doubt that Mouse will go ape shit and rush at my attacker, little razor teeth bared, and then Morris will lunge with those huge jaws and that impressive chest, and no casual urban park mugger will stick around. Unless they have a gun and think that they can shoot dogs too.

Halfway through the forest I stop to look around me. This is what I do most days when I’m here in the woods at this spot, where the trees open out a little and I can stand on the path with my back to the stream. I look north, the direction we’ve come from. Nobody there. I turn slowly and look up ahead, to where the path splits around a giant bluegum and you have to watch your step because the roots have been exposed by the hundreds of human and dog feet passing weekly through the forest. Every now and then one of the big trees on the slope topples over after a rainstorm, when the topsoil has been worn away and the roots are standing well above ground, bared, looking for purchase. The park gardeners come in with a chainsaw after a few days. They cut only the part that is across the path, leaving the trunk on the slope to rot slowly.

I stand for a minute, straining to hear above the noise of the water. Polluted or not, it chatters over the rocks like any country stream. I look up the slope and see that the floodlights on the soccer field have been turned on, and light is coming over the lip of the hill. There is no noise of a game yet.

I turn to look for the dogs but don’t see them right away. I strain into the soft gloom amongst the trees. There they are, just up ahead on the path, waiting for me, wondering why I’ve stopped. Or are they are analysing the source of some movement in the gathering dark? Perhaps they smell something they can’t yet see. We stand, the three of us, not moving, listening to the woods. There is a slight wind, and the tops of the pines and bluegums have started their sighing.

Then I see something. I try to separate it from the tree that it is next to, try to decode the shape of what I’m looking at. The dogs have not moved, but they’ve not seen what I’ve seen. They’re watching me, waiting for me to decide. If I give them some signal they’ll see it too, so I stand rock-still. Then it moves, out of the shadow of the pine and slightly up the slope. Soundless. Suddenly it is in the light spilling over from the soccer fields. Still the dogs are oblivious. I hold my breath, and hear my heart in my ears. It hasn’t seen me yet. It stands, listening too, enormous head turned to look up the slope. It’s a kudu bull, fully grown, its horns spiralling up into the darkness. The head turns slowly towards me. The horns start right in the middle, between the big twitching ears, then curve outwards, and do two graceful twists to end in sharp points. I see the white fur that runs across the face, below the ridge of the brow. The floodlight is caught for a second in the liquid eyes. They turn iridescent green until he shifts his head slightly to look at me and then the eyes lose the light and blacken. I feel sure that he can see me now. He is looking directly at me, ears swivelling back and forth. I see the delicate white stripes that come down to the flanks from the crown of his spine, down to his belly where they fade to a soft brown. He is breathing deeply, his sides moving up and down. His body is facing up the slope and his head is turned in my direction, the big ridge of fur behind his head standing up straight, moving slightly in the breeze.

The wind, coming from behind me, from the north, will have told him of our presence, so he knows, he knew long before I did. Perhaps he can’t make out what is there, exactly, but the fine follicles in his nose will pick apart the strands of scent that are coming to him on the wind, sorting through the library of his deep knowledge, looking for a match to his experience or to some buried instinct carried in his DNA that will tell him what we are and how to respond to our presence, here on the slope in the urban woods.

The dogs are moving now. They are bored of waiting and turn to go on, along the path and deeper into the woods. The kudu hears them and immediately he breaks, lunging up the hill, shattering twigs underfoot so that the stillness that enveloped us is torn apart as he thrusts through it. He passes me, close enough for me to reach out and touch him, moving swiftly, fluid as water over a rock, and I turn with him as he goes by. He is through the gap between the trees and crashing into the thick bush beyond. Then he is gone and a wave of silence flows back on me, carrying a faint scent of something wild and charged with fear. The forest closes behind him and the noise of traffic drifts to me from the lights at the corner, just beyond the end of the park, where two dense streams of traffic intersect. I start to breathe again, big ragged breaths. The dogs have come back. They heard the noise of his passage, but it was too sudden for them to figure it out and so here they are at my feet, panting and excited by something they can sense but don’t understand, not giving chase but seeming to ask me what it is, what has just happened.

I bend down to pat their heads, my hands trembling slightly, and then we walk on. For a few paces I can’t feel my feet on the path and when we get to the big gnarled roots of the bluegum I trip and lunge forward before regaining my footing. I hear, suddenly, the shrill blast of a whistle and the sounds of a soccer match on the field above me, the muffled leathery thud of boot on ball, men running and calling to each other under the bright lights.

This is the second part of If you go down to the woods. Read the rest of the story: