A Short Story by Bruce Jack
Author’s note: this is an expanded story based on a braai conversation with my friend Francis Pratt with whom I launched The Berrio wine brand from Elim in 2001. We were discussing how some people can farm, and others simply cannot. It’s not about intent, the ability to work hard or intelligence. Destiny plays a big role. But mostly it’s about how you practice your intent. Building a wine business is a lot like farming. You can never take your foot off the pedal and how and when you apply that pressure will determine your survival.
This is based on a true story, but I have embellished it and changed all the family and personal details, so it has absolutely no intended reference to any particular family or person.
Sensing trouble, Tracer weaved around his gumboots as Jan trudged through the big drops of rain, shaken from high leaves by gusts of wind. Jan paused and ran his hands over the wet trunk of a massive ghostgum, glistening white in the security light. He touched the raised pellet-gun scars he had inflicted from his bedroom window as a child. The border collie jumped into the back of his bakkie.
Those watching his jolting headlights from the milking shed that morning saw him drive unusually slowly towards the dark wooded hill that separated his farm from his uncle’s.
Outside his uncle’s dairy, the massive umbrella pines waved brittle branches at the cloud-packed, pre-dawn sky – the colour of the bruise you get after a punch to the eye. Jan sat there turning the battered matchbox over in his hand. Whatever was inside tumbled lightly against the sides with a familiar, friendly sound. He felt the warm roughness of the cardboard and the sleekness of the repair tape. He sat in the bakkie – heavy from a troubled night’s sleep. Why had his uncle asked him to return it? Tracer, unused to procrastination, barked from the back.
Inside the milking hall the feeding troughs had been cleared, the old granite drains washed down. The hall smelled of cut grass and the damp had a seeping chill to it. He knocked lightly on the office door and gently pushed it open.
Tertius du Preez was standing at the window, examining a jar of dark fynbos honey against the watery sunrise. “Morning, Nephew”, he said cheerfully, “Make us a cup of tea.”
Jan didn’t feel like tea. He placed the matchbox on the desk and saw his uncle’s eyebrows rise at the state of it.
Tertius leaned slowly across his desk, then sat back to examine it. He shook the matchbox next to his ear.
Finally, he said, “I think it’s time.”
At 2.23am on a Tuesday, just over two years before, Jan’s cell phone woke him the second time his mother called.
“Son…, thank you God… It’s your father…” it was as though the reception was cutting in and out. He somehow knew his father was dead.
“I am on my way, ma. Where are you?”
“Jannie, he has been shot… men…”
What made him different from his father, people said, was his quiet intensity. His half ambitious- half melancholy manner seemed to unsettle some people. “You were just born serious, my son,” his mother would say, smiling cautiously.
The next day, after visiting the hospital to view his father’s body, he opened the family dairy for milking.
It was easy extending the bank loan when your father’s murder had been reported in Die Burger as a ‘farm attack’. This extension enabled Jan to upgrade the milking equipment with the latest computer-interfaced, automated system from Holland – something he had been trying to persuade his father to do.
Soon after the funeral he started re-tilling the milking shed walls from floor to ceiling. Every morning when the tilers arrived, they found he had marked ‘do again’ with an indelible black marker on any tiles that were misaligned or a slightly different shade of white. As a kid he had watched his uncle manage building the same way.
On the newly painted wall above his new office desk he hung his agricultural diploma, a picture of his unbeaten school rugby team and one of his father fishing in Mozambique. On his desk, alongside a new computer, he placed a small, ornate, silver-framed portrait of his mother on her wedding day.
Jan’s phone alarm exploded next to his head at 4.45am daily – before sunrise, before the south-easterly wind stirred in summer – cool and quiet; without the unpredictability of too many people.
He pulled on his blue overalls, slipped on his gumboots and made a strong cup of instant coffee with creamy milk. He promised himself he would buy one of those fancy coffee machines as soon as he was making good money.
The wind was breathing through the trees by the time he strode across the ‘werf’ to the whitewashed stone walls of the dairy. He moved with a surprising litheness for such a big man.
The glare of the new LED lights off the sparkling tiles made him squint, as two of his staff slid open the big green corrugated iron doors. The cows were already there – waiting to be let in.
By midday the south-easterly wind would take an edge off the heat. It would be scouring iron-rich, red dust from the stubble of bare Overberg hills.
Despite the new equipment and his natural diligence, he wasn’t getting many more A grades from the milk company than his father had. Actually, he was starting to get more and more embarrassing C grades. As every farmer in the district knew, you started losing money with C grades.
That evening after dinner, Jan sat in the big leather couch, the rugby on the TV muted. He had been paging through old family photo albums. They had required a dust off.
The empty house creaked and sighed as she cooled down. He laid his large hands on his knees, feeling their weight. He studied the hardening callouses and the dirt beneath his fingernails. The dirt irritated him. The dust had scratched the corners of his young eyes. Outside the wind was bothering the treetops.
He met Marietta towards the end of that first summer in charge of the farm. He first saw the back of her in church. He watched her as she stood up to sing, like the slow-motion release of a coiled spring. She moved like a leopard, he thought. When she turned around to leave, she was instantly, indelibly etched into his heart.
Unfortunately, what followed were the worst few months of his nascent farming career. His milk was graded C for the next three weeks in a row, followed by a solitary B, and then another five weeks of C’s.
One evening after dinner, he felt an unusual fatigue seep into his legs, buckling his knees as he stacked a solitary bowl alongside the last four days’ plates in the dishwasher. Gravity seemed to drag his huge frame towards the floor. He steadied himself on the basin, his eyes sore, closed; his head against the cool cupboard.
He walked out of the kitchen and then out of the front door, automatically stepping over the creaking yellowwood floorboard at the threshold. The wind was swirling around the corner of the veranda and he felt steady again.
The new layer of red Cobra polish on the tiles smelled faintly of melting beeswax and diesel. It shone like his father’s polished leather army boots. His head was clear now. The pain in his lower back sent a tingle of pins and needles down his left leg. The setting sun caught a mini whirlwind of tawny dust spiralling down the driveway, away from the homestead, towards the dry riverbed below the olive orchard.
The wind bent the blue gum tops over the house by the wind. They were complaining back at the gusts, which made loud tearing sounds at the leaves whenever they came through.
It was time to visit his uncle.
Before sunrise the next morning, he drove over the wooded hill. He was greeted on arrival with a cup of carefully strained, loose-leaf Earl Grey tea, seeped in 90°C water for exactly one and a half minutes.
The milking hall smelled of sour hay, lactic acid and fresh manure. No desktop computer on his uncle’s old South African Railways desk, just a collection of ancient stone hand-axes and piles of hand-written notes, neatly arranged in handmade poplar-wood boxes.
Jan had never been a fan of Earl Grey tea, but from the thin-rimmed porcelain cup it tasted smooth and spicy. That morning’s milk formed buttery swirls on the surface. He relaxed.
“Uncle, thank you for meeting with me. I didn’t want to bother you with… with this problem.” He hesitated, suddenly unable to recall the speech he had practiced late into the previous night.
His uncle stood, walked around the desk and sat on the edge facing him. “With the milk grades?” he offered.
Jan lifted his eyes. He was silent for a few seconds, then: “I don’t understand it, Uncle. I work to the book. I work hard. I spend hours on the internet trying to understand the problems… find solutions. But… I am failing…” he hunched his big torso forward, unable to finish.
His uncle watched him. He poured another cup of tea for them. They could hear the last cows being led around the back of the dairy; the barking and the whistling.
Cautiously, his uncle said: “I think it’s time I shared with you a family secret.” His dark brown eyes flashed with the sun pulsing through the trees.
Tertius opened his desk drawer and produced a normal-looking Lion matchbox and placed it on the desk between them.
“I will share this family secret with you, nephew, on one condition…” He paused and lowered his voice: “You must swear that you will never look into this matchbox. If you do, Jan, the spell will be broken. The magic will be lost.”
Jan nodded, “Yes, Uncle,” but he suddenly felt uncomfortable.
Tertius leaned to his side and unhurriedly tapped his pipe out on the edge of a metal wastepaper basket. When he spoke again, his voice was a conspiratorial whisper, his bushy eyebrows low over his eyes.
“Every morning you must stand on the inside of the dairy as the cows are led in. You must stand on the left of the door.” He stood up to demonstrate, “As each cow enters, you must shake the matchbox in her right ear twice – no more – you mustn’t waste shakes.” Jan had never heard of this matchbox secret. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“When your cows are hooked up, you must visit each cow in turn as they are milked. You must get to all of them in good time. You must shake the matchbox in each cow’s left and right ear as they are milked. Again, only do so twice in each ear. This is of utmost importance, Jan.”
His uncle returned to Jan’s side, “And when they are finished with milking and being led out, you must shake the matchbox twice in their left ear as they leave.” He shook the match box in Jan’s ear.
Jan was no longer focused on the instructions. Instead he was thinking about something his mother had done when he was a young boy. Grasping him hard by the shoulders, so he could feel her nails dig into his arms, she had said, “Jan, your uncle is different from other men. He doesn’t like women. Do you understand?” But her eyes were not kind. Her voice also had fear, like when she found a Cape Cobra in the bathroom and called his father. Jan didn’t understand what she meant, but he was scarred and unsettled by it.
“I don’t want you to ever be alone with him. Do you understand that..,” she had said. It wasn’t a question. And Jan looked at his shoes, and said yes, just as he was doing now.
He forced himself to look up at his uncle.
His uncle was warming to his speech and sounded like a minister in the church, getting worked up: “This will only work if you visit each cow without a pause. You can’t take a call in between. Don’t be distracted. Focus on the matchbox. That’s all that matters!” His voice was loud above the wind in the trees.
Irritation was replacing the embarrassment. He had driven over the hill for real farming advice, not witchcraft from a lonely, unmarried man.
“When you are visiting the milking cows, you must talk to them. You must tell them how they are looking. Just mention one thing you notice, like a drooping eyelid, or a cracked hoof…”
His uncle shook the matchbox once more, just in front of Jan’s face, watching the bewildered eyes look back at him.
“And finally, Jan,” he held the little matchbox out to his nephew, “Keep it in a very, very safe place.”
When he arrived back on his farm, Jan locked the matchbox in his gun safe, then googled ‘secret matchbox’, ‘magic matchbox’ and even ‘dairy matchbox’. Google hadn’t heard of the magic matchbox either.
The painkillers he swallowed with dinner had worn off. The pain in his lower back tore away the brittle relief of sleep. He tried lying on his side, then rolled onto his back again. He bent his knees and put a pillow under them. This helped. The wind was very loud. He imagined a huge, invisible fist sparring with the trees – wearing them out, ripping off a branch.
He woke a few hours later, momentarily disorientated by the alarm on his ‘phone. Arriving at the milking hall, he saw two of his staff kneeling at the wastewater outlet – the third time in a month it had blocked. This would mean another delay and the inevitable loss of quality. Later that morning he drove into town to extend his bank loan.
He started spending weekends away from the farm and leaving the opening of the shed and the milking to his staff. Marietta agreed to go away with him to Stilbaai on one of these. They arrived late on Friday afternoon. The autumn sea was the colour of oil in the early evening half-light. They were the only people walking on the beach. Seagulls huddled in buffeted gangs, watching them pass.
She told him about her parents’ divorce when she was 14, and how she had made a promise to herself never to marry as a result. They walked in silence for a long while after this, before he told her about what his mother had said about his uncle when he was a small boy. He wasn’t quite sure why he was telling her this, but it seemed like a similar level of trauma.
He told her that his mother’s tense speech hadn’t stopped him seeing his uncle. Despite the fact that he loved his father, he had always felt he was more similar to his uncle – this reticent, particular man.
“But, my uncle is losing the plot now, Marietta…”
He stepped over a jellyfish the size of a bakkie hubcap – purple, translucent; almost luminous in the failing light. Then he told her about the unsettling incidence of the matchbox.
She stopped walking and took both his hands in hers, pulling him around to face her. As he looked down at her, he could just make out the intensity in her eyes. “He wouldn’t have given that to you unless it meant something very, very important, Jan,” she said.
They started walking again, the sound of the waves louder and closer in the darkness.
“Maybe we both need to learn how to trust more,” she said quietly, her words barely audible above the waves and the wind off the sea.
The dogs woke him – they were barking aggressively through the fog of his sleep. He thought he heard something behind the house; a racket in the chicken coop. It was almost a full moon, but there were clouds – it was probably a rooikat or an otter.
The dogs kept barking. He forced himself out of bed and unlocked his gun safe. The security light had been triggered. Shining through the window it lit up his uncle’s matchbox on the ammunition shelf. He put it in his pocket, along with a spare magazine of ammunition.
An hour later he walked heavy-legged across the ‘werf’. He released the empty magazine from the rifle with a solid ‘click’ and thrust it into his pocket. His hand touched the matchbox.
He stopped mid-stride, thirty metres from the dairy, his fingers now clutching the unexpected object. He leaned his big frame ever so slightly into a warm Berg wind out of the north. The door was being slid open for the cows.
“Wait!” he shouted urgently. “Hold them there.” He ran towards them, the rifle slung over his shoulder. He ran past them into the shed, closing the doors behind him.
Feeling eyes on him, he swiveled around. Leaning against a low wall was Old Paulus, a retired farmhand. He had turned up to claim his few litres of fresh milk.
“Sorry, Old Paulus, I didn’t see you there. Good morning.”
Old Paulus rolled the balaclava higher above his eyes. “Morning, young boss,” he said slowly, cautiously eyeing the rifle.
Jan stood there, head-bowed, his huge shoulders bent over the matchbox cupped now in both hands.
“You must stand on the left.”
Jan snapped his head up at the old man, who was casually chewing on an unlit cigarette, still leaning against the wall and staring directly back at him.
Old Paulus spoke again, more slowly, as though Jan was a bit slow, “You must stand on the left of the door as they come in – to shake that little box.”
It took a week for the gnawing feeling of foolishness to wear off, and it might have taken longer if a few B grades hadn’t appeared. So incredulous was the milk company after such a lengthy run of C’s that they sent the first samples away for re-analysis. Within a fortnight, Jan registered his first seven B grades in a row.
It took a while to adapt to the new procedure. To ensure he and his matchbox weren’t disturbed, Jan switched off the two-way radio in his office. He also started leaving his cell phone in the kitchen until after his mid-morning shower and breakfast.
After a month of shaking the matchbox, Jan registered his first A grade. That was a few weeks after Old Paulus happened to be in the milking hall, quietly pointing out to each cow the odd, small thing he noticed about her: “You look a bit sleepy, young lady – are you getting enough fibre, I wonder?”, and, “What’s that small wound on your neck? You been sticking your head through the barbed wire again, my girl?”
This reminded Jan to engage in the weird, one-way communication. Despite his reservations, he forced himself to talk to his cows – self-consciously and quietly. But then the A grades came more frequently, and his voice found an assertive tone.
Winter was stalking the sun across the Overberg, drawing in ever darker, cooler mornings and wind-still days. Jan hadn’t been to town or left the farm much – other than essential visits, like buying sheep on auction or going to church.
Amazingly, the magic matchbox was working on his equipment too. For weeks he hadn’t had to replace a suction cap or order a new part from Holland. Most astonishingly, he couldn’t recall when last the vet had been called out. He was registering more A’s than B’s.
When Marietta joined him in the dairy, he was carefully winding white electrical tape around the matchbox, which was threatening to come apart. She was wearing purple gumboots with yellow flowers which he had ordered for her from an on-line garden shop based in England. She brought him a steaming mug of deliciously aromatic coffee made with the new fancy coffee machine.
That afternoon, after the staff had been sent home, they hiked up the mountain overlooking the farm. The Overberg stretched out below in swathes of green wheat and intriguingly shaped patches of creamy canola – about to burst into bright yellow. Another north-westerly winter storm was forecast, promising more rain.
In the steep, grey-green Renostebos creases between rolling hills, winter had driven sheltering sheep. Farm roads were slippery orange ribbons of clay, like wet oil paint through rippling, vibrant green wheat and barley.
“Winter paints the valley into such a softness,” she said, as they walked through the fynbos, following an ancient path over sun-bleached white sandstone. Grey, moss-covered granite stones marked their progress, some sculptured by the weather into animal shapes – strange, silent sentinels of the mountains.
A light rain started falling. Jan bent down and snapped off an Erica flower at the base. It had tiny, fire-engine red flowers and a thin brown woody stem. He weaved it into a small circular band as they walked. Then he turned to her, went down onto his knee and held up the fynbos ring in his fingertips.
“Marietta, will you marry me?”
“Yes, Jan,” she answered with a wide smile, “I will marry you…” her eyes were smiling as she slipped on the ring. “I will marry you and your matchbox.”
Jan gawked at his uncle, unable to speak. Tertius was using his penknife to cut the white electrical tape away from the battered matchbox. He slid it open. Jan flew out of his seat, an involuntarily, explosive force propelling him. His uncle held the matchbox towards him, revealing nothing more than three used matches.
Then he tossed the matchbox into the wastepaper basket where it landed on a pile of burnt-out pipe tobacco.
“But, Uncle..,” spluttered Jan, stepping towards the wastepaper basket.
“It is not the matchbox, Nephew!” The heat in his tone startled Jan.
Quietly his uncle said, “All the matchbox did was help you to spend the right amount of time and energy focusing on the right things…” he paused, “At exactly the right time.”
Jan sat back heavily in the old chair, which almost collapsed under his bulk.
His uncle’s eyes narrowed, “Timing, Jan.” Jan was still speechless.
“Your intelligence, your diligence, your hard work, your training – these tools, you were using properly for the first time.”
Then, even more warmly, he said, “There is no magic in being a good farmer, Jan. There is only luck and timing. God is in charge of our luck, I am afraid. We all need to learn the art and focus of timing.”
He smiled his odd, sad smile. “And timing, Nephew, is a close friend of destiny.”
They sat there for a few more seconds in silence, Jan shaking his head, his breathing slowing. Tertius straightened up stiffly and walked around his desk. He put his hand out to his nephew.
“You did it all by yourself, Jan.” They shook hands. “Congratulations, Nephew.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Jan breathed in deeply again. He was not really smiling, but the edges of his mouth were turning up and the frown had disappeared.
He walked out of the dairy and into the crisp, blustery morning, smelling of wet, iron-rich Overberg soil.