BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN
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: