WHEN I CAME ACROSS THE PUFF ADDER SKULL I WAS BOTH DRAWN TO IT AND SCARED. IT WAS LYING AMONG THE BUSHES ALONGSIDE THE TREES AND RIVER.
MY SISTERS WHERE in the fields nearby and I longed to show it to them, but I decided it needed respect and I left it where it lay. In my 10-year-old brain I had a vision of the snake-spirit visiting me in the night, enraged that I had disturbed it. The dark serpentine river, lined with a tangle of trees, the damp, leaf covered river bank – and the skull. This is how I will remember Irene, a small village north of Johannesburg, in the 1980s.
We were trespasses there, the farmland was not open to visitors let alone unaccompanied children. But go there we would, past the old graveyard, over the army-ants that crawled up our legs, under the rusty old fence to freedom – and being somewhere we should not. But the mystery of the place was irresistible and the intensity of Nature an immersion into a parallel world where school and bathtime and homework did not exist. African Nature was alive with life. Those were the days I could walk, and walking was a freedom unappreciated then. A freedom that woman and children did not know either during the Anglo Boer War in the late 1800 to early 1900s. There were three concentration camps here in Irene. I saw an old photo taken from one of the nearby hills of the valley dotted with white tents where the people lived and suffered. All the while the guerrilla war between the British forces and the Boers raged. Alongside my primary school was the cemetery of all those who died in the camps.
Many of my friends said Irene was haunted.They said they felt it when they drove through the place at night. It was the same feeling I had when opening an old bible my father had inherited from his father. It smelt of smoke and filled me with chills when I opened it. I believed then it contained a spirit. My father explained that it was discovered by his father stuffed up an old chimney of a burned out farm house during the Boer war. It was bound in leather by a prisoner of the Second World War at the Zonderwater concentration camp where he later donated it. The leather cover was ornate with twists and twirls, serpentine and old. you could run your fingers over the deep grooves.
Like the bible and discovering that skull, reality would pierce through the luminous bushes: it was the afternoon my mother told me our gardener had been arrested by the police. They had caught him without a Pass. During apartheid, only white people were allowed to vote and own land in the then Transvaal. Black people had to have government approved visiting rights to work in white areas. Our gardener had left his Pass in the small residence he was living in 20m down the road and he offered to fetch it. That was not good enough for The Brutes – and he was taken away.
From the street, we spotted our gardener in a long queue entering the police station. In her inarguable manner my mother confronted the Iron Giants and he was released. My 10-year-old brain had no concept of what was going down in South Africa then. How could it? Childhood was a swirl of green leaves, soft rain and open fields. Nature held me close in her aura. And the serpent of apartheid did not want to be uncovered. It suited its plan to wrap its muscular being around your legs while nobody was looking. Now there is a golf-course where the skull used to be and houses surround the old cemetery. We have moved from secrecy to a sort of muddy transparency and un-freedom to liberty. In my case freedom may not be walking, but it involves wheelchairs and paths, nature is welcoming and snakes, yes, snakes, are our friends. Most of the time.