A creative nonfiction tale of catching fish.
When cancer took Ouma, we lost more than a grandmother.
Reeling from the loss, the tears not dried on their faces, her four sons decided, the farm had to go. Her two daughters’ voices, bitter in its opposition, didn’t carry enough weight to swing the jury’s decision. But they didn’t surrender without a skirmish.
“Matthias, you can’t do this to us.”
‘Father is too old to keep farming.”
“He’s only eighty-three.”
“Sis, you know none of us are farmers.”
“Then let’s rent out the fields, the land — we can keep the homestead . . .”
“The farm has to go.”
“One of the grandsons can — ”
“They’re too young and inexperienced.”
“Then teach them.”
“’Tis too late — we have an offer on the table.”
“At what price? It’s a steal!”
“Sorry Sis, but the farm is going.”
Oupa, silent in his sorrow, signed the stipulated documents, allowing his six children to whisk him away — he’d go stay with each one on a rotational basis until the dust “had settled” and clear thinking was more likely.
Finding the buyer for the farm, proved to be the most straightforward task of all. “The price is right, the price is right,” the man brimmed, his smile as wide as his hat; he did things on a larger scale — the farm would become a cattle outpost. When we, the twenty-three grandchildren learned about this, we choked on more than tears. An outpost? Fortunately for the uncles, most of us were too young to understand the full implication, saving them the drama of a full-scale mutiny.
Hartebeeshoek, Hartebeest Corner, was more than a farm — it was the epitome of a stately old place where childhood memories were created on a grandiose scale. Nestled behind a small hill, tucked in by hedges of Eucalyptus and clusters of Pine, Karee, and Kiepersol, the red metal roof house welcomed each and everyone with its expansive porch, wrapped around the front of the place, complete with foot-wide stone walls.
Was there anything more glorious than to wake in the mornings, listening to the turtledoves’ cooing, and the cows lowing in the kraal, waiting to be milked? The only limit to what was possible or conceivable there was one’s imagination.
In a moment of weakness, the uncles agreed to allow us to at least purge the dirt dam of its fish. The dam was sizeable — whenever the rains came that year, it could cover all of two football fields; and on its wall, handfuls of weeping willows gave haven to yellow-billed ducks, swallows, starlings, and weavers.
Purging a dirt dam of its carp, mudfish, and yellowfish is not for the faint of heart. I didn’t know that and had to learn it in a palpable way. The uncles and older cousins saw to the technical detail of the operation. Oh, much planning had to go into such an endeavor. One needed a wide enough pulling net, scooping nets, containers to put the fish in, tables and workspace to gut the fish, and freezer space to store it in afterward. On the matter of who to allow to participate in ‘the big catch,’ no hard and fast rules were enforced. Sensing discontent among the younger guard, the uncles turned a blind eye. If you could swim, in you were.
Like a battalion going into battle, we descended on the dam. The plan was straightforward enough. The adults and oldest cousins would spread out along the length of the net, the tallest at the deepest end. We would slowly walk through from the one side of the dam to the other, chasing the fish into a corner, where a handful of cousins and an uncle would catch the fish by hand and with scooping nets and deliver them to large containers, stationed on the opposite shore.
I counted among the younger cousins but refused to remain on shore with the vroumense (womenfolk) and watch; I took my place between an uncle and a bigger cousin, taking hold of the net with determined hands, not letting go. The net was weighted down with clusters of sinkers in the hope fewer of the fish would escape our sweep.
For a short few hours, the heartache of gathering in black attire around a casket and an open grave, bidding farewell to a grand old Ouma, forgotten. The excitement bubbled and pulsed among those behind the net, those traipsing on shore, as well as those waiting in the shallows with their scooping nets. As one man we waded into the murky waters. A hadeda, with a rustle of wings, took flight, piercing the clear sky with its repetitive ha-dee-dah calls.
The mortification must have been written all over my face as we sunk away to mid-calf after a mere ten steps.
“Danie, are you okay?”
Swallowing hard, I nodded, not trusting my voice, my small fists white-knuckled as I held onto the net, keeping up as we waded deeper and deeper.
I had to bite on my teeth not to cry out; wading waist-deep in water was one thing, but sinking away to mid-calve with each step in slimy glue-like mud was a horse of a different color, especially if one was barely eight.
As we continued the relentless march through Oupa’s dirt dam, the dam on Hartebeeshoek, the distraught carp and mudfish milled around in consternation, realizing something was amiss; desperate to escape the net, they broke surface, darted and dashed, jumping like salmon on a river run, catching the mid-morning sun on their wet bodies, before dropping back into the water.
It sounded like a carnival, with young and old whooping and shouting and coaxing one another along. Those waiting with the scooping nets had their work cut out for them, grasping after slimy glistening bodies with hesitant hands and nets. And on shore the girls and women folk stood, each edging their son or brother or husband on.
As I kept up, ever so often being pulled free from knee-deep mud by an uncle, it became clear that I was not the only one who dreaded the slippery mud and scampering fish. Glancing up and down the unstitched line of men and boys — I noticed many a face pulled as if in agony. Over several cheeks the tears ran freely — to this day I do not know how many were shed due to all the laughing and clowning around, and how many were due to the realization of the finality of what we were doing. The purging of the dam of its fish was saying goodbye to something bigger than ourselves, to a limb that had been torn off, but we knew it not.
Getting closer to the opposite shore where the ‘catchers’ had dug themselves in, it reminded one of what it must have looked like when the disciples pulled the net with the miraculous catch of fish onto the shore of Lake Galilee. My memory is failing me now, but I am convinced we filled close to twelve baskets of carp and mudfish that morning.
Staggering out at the shallow end after the first wade-through, trying to rinse some mud from my legs, my younger siblings milled around, overjoyed their brother had been part of the great catch. Everyone laughed and talked and pointed at the net and the squirming fish.
I turned back toward the water when a reed cormorant’s cry rose above the din and the willows and the sun. Only then did I remember why we were there. I muttered under my breath, “Goodbye Ouma. Goodbye Hartebeeshoek. I love you.”