The day Ryno Eksteen had to let his favourite hen go
Mom clings like a weaverbird to the steering wheel of the Ford Fairlane. It’s Dad, with his long legs, who pushes the seat back. Mom leaves it just as it is. It’s easier to move a car seat backwards than forwards. The space between her body and the backrest is large enough for me to stand in, but I may not. We must drive nicely today, because I have a very special passenger on my lap.
When Mom waves to people, it’s like a concert. She calls out the name of each person at the roadside loudly, even though they can’t hear her. She waves with her left hand to the folks on our right and she uses her right hand to wave to those on our left. Her waving is crosswise – like sometimes when she indicates that we are going to turn left, but then we turn right.
Dad has his own way of waving. He simply lifts his forefinger off the steering wheel, then lets it drop again. In fact, he only drives the car on Sundays: to church and when we visit people.
On Sundays we would drive into town at about 9.40am. I’d sit in the centre of the back seat, wearing a big knot in my tie and a frown. Inside the church, the words “God is Love” are embroidered on the pulpit cloth, which is trimmed with patterns woven in gold thread. I’d always wonder how many hours of work had gone into that tapestry. Stitch by stitch. Was it a labour of love by one of the congregants? Did her family get a free pass to go to church without contributing to the collection, Sunday after Sunday, for
Toeks is intended for the bazaar. She’s broody, which means she looks her best. When I fetched her from the coop and placed my hand beneath her warm feathers, she pecked me lightly. Mom says you only give your best to the Lord.
the rest of their lives? Or was it perhaps the handiwork of the friendly oom who lives near the silos? Mom says he knits his own jerseys. During the service, I’d stare at the organ pipes reaching nearly up to the roof. Sometimes I count up to 26, and other times I get to 69. When my eyes start to swim between the upright lines and the openings near the sharp points, I start counting from the beginning once more. Dad says the previous dominee’s children were like organ pipes, but I don’t know anyone with that many children.
Dad always listens to the sermon with closed eyes, sucking XXX peppermints. Once I pestered him for a sweet and, without opening his eyes, he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and gave me a small round one. I started coughing and, outside, Mom made me throw up. My sisters giggled all the way home. At the second gate, Mom said Dad should be more careful: “And open your eyes when you talk to the child.”
Mothballs look a lot like peppermints. TODAY WE’RE ON OUR WAY to the bazaar in the church hall. The two girls, wearing matching dresses, are at the back. Mom says there are many needy people the church has to assist but she thinks the 1978 bazaar is going to make a lot of money. Toeks, my red-brown Australorp hen, sits quietly on my lap. Toeks is intended for the bazaar. She’s broody, which means she looks her best. When I fetched her from the coop and placed my hand beneath her warm feathers, she pecked me lightly. Mom says you only give your best to the Lord.
If you place a chicken’s head under her wing, she’ll stay just like that. This is how I’ve made 30 chickens lie down in the yard. White and brown and black chickens all mixed up, and a koekoek or two. One day I called Mom to come see. She’d always play along: “Now what could be making them lie like this? Do you think they’re taking a nap?”
“I don’t know, Mommy. I saw an airship bigger than Dad’s milk trucks land here and people who looked like rabbits talked to the chickens and then they just lay down.”
“Oh,” said Mom. She kneeled beside a hen and stroked her feathers. The hen jumped up, looked around in confusion and began pecking at invisible seeds. Then Mom and I moved the heads of all the chickens out from under their wings. We laughed and said nothing about it to Dad when he returned from the fields. Some things Mom kept to herself.
Mom often complains that I bug her laying hens, but the hens and I understand one another. I enjoy going to the coop. I don’t bother much with the Leghorns – although they laid the most eggs, the other types were better at hatching. If I asked nicely, my stalwarts would hatch any egg for me. The year before, Toeks hatched a guineafowl chick from an egg I found at the river. Mom said the egg was probably rotten, but 21 days later the baby guineafowl was under Toeks’s wing, along with 11 baby chickens. The guineafowl was an arrogant bird. I was afraid of him. But I loved him, too. All those little dots. When I had measels I wasn’t allowed outside for a long time and had to lie in my room with the curtains drawn. I’d listen to all the sounds out in the yard. One day I could no longer hear the guineafowl among the chickens. That night I heard Dad say that game meat simply tasted different in a pie. THE CHURCH HALL IS PACKED. I hope I win the draw to get Toeks back again. I have enough money for five tickets if I buy nothing else. Mom says the chances are slim; one should never set one’s hopes on gambling. I don’t even look in the direction of the children’s table. At least Mom will buy enough dessert to take home. She’s brought along a number of empty Tupperware containers.
“Why are you holding the boy’s hand?” asks a tannie after telling Mom everything the doctor says is wrong with her. “He’s old enough to walk on his own.” I stand behind Mom.
“Just like a hanslam,” says the tannie and walks away. Mom squats and comforts me, saying that Haas Das
se Nuuskas will be on TV again tonight. At first we used to visit people in town to watch TV. Dad said we’d get a set one day if and when there was reception on the farm for the antenna. For several days, people walked around the yard with long sticks and test boxes, buttons, wires and pipes – like a small brass orchestra looking for a melody. It turned out there was a strong signal – in the centre of the chicken coop – but Dad said they had to continue searching. I could already picture the chickens watching Thunderbirds.
The only other place they found a signal was in our front garden, among the nasturtiums and the snails. They attached a long thing to one of the poles. It looked something like a kite, but just the skeleton – no paper and no tail. Dad said he was doing it for us, but then he ended up watching TV until the flag waved, the drive-in at Riversdale suddenly forgotten. AT THE BAZAAR, farm- and townsfolk mingle and chat. Dad’s here at last. He brought one of his sheep in the bakkie. I see him speaking softly to the dominee. My eyes stay on Toeks in her cage. I want nothing more than to win her back. Dad comes over to tell me Toeks looks beautiful. I look away. I’m angry with him. He knows I know my guineafowl didn’t go to heaven. He ate him.
The dominee takes to the stage and clears his throat. The draw is about to start. Everyone falls silent. Oom Fourie, the head elder, walks to the dominee’s side to offer his assistance. They start with Toeks. The dominee puts his hand into the box and draws a ticket, but before Oom Fourie can ask whose number it is, the dominee calls out Dad’s name.