The next morning JJ’s mother, Johanna, was in the kitchen. He kissed her good morning then went to take a shower.
When JJ returned he found her in his bedroom, the bed made the travel bag he’d packed and left on the floor now standing accusingly on the foot of the bed.
“You’re leaving so soon?” His mother’s eyes were misty and near tears—it was always like this when he left, Johanna always wanted the family together.
“It’s been almost a week, Ma. I have business to attend to and Morgan’s flying to the States for Thanksgiving…”
“You said you could do most of it with your phone and computer. You said she didn’t mind?”
“Yes, but only for so long. There are overdue meetings and site inspections... I need to spend some time with her because it’s going to be an awkward trip for her. I promise I’ll be back soon, as soon as she’s gone.”
“It’s because of your father, isn’t it...?” She went straight to the truth of the matter; they both knew she’d named the real reason.
He could never lie to her when she looked at him like this.
“I want peace with him, Ma, but when we’re in the same house it creates friction… he won’t even say Morgan’s name. It’s been years and it’s time to get over it. This creates so much unnecessary friction for Sonja too. Pa thinks I’m influencing her.”
“It is a worry,” his mother was frank. “But I believe she has her own mind… your father does think she’s completely under your spell.”
“We think so much alike because we’re the same generation—almost the same generation.” He paused, “We have different influences now to what you lived through… and that is what changes us.”
Johanna was going to stop him to point out that every generation has different influences to their parents, but JJ forestalled her before she could.
“What’s different now, Ma, is the communication. When you and Pa grew up there were rigid structures; you mixed with the town, you seldom met strangers. The coloureds and blacks stuck to themselves. Maybe you read a newspaper or some popular books—that’s it. But Sonja sits at school next to all races, she has access over the Internet to the whole world—not just spoon-fed media but social media where she interacts two-way… not only consuming what she reads but interacting with others who have very different ideas. Her friends in social media are from all over… from the Middle East, America… from Europe. They’re friends because they have the same interests and intellect, not because they’re neighbours. So it’s completely different for her than it was for you… even different than it was for me just ten, twenty years ago; it’s all moving and changing so fast.”
Johanna was nodding—she couldn’t argue it.
“She’s such a smart girl, Ma. Maybe a lot smarter than you or Pa or anyone in this town realizes. She has a big future…”
“You’re telling me she’s also going to leave?” His mother knew it, but saying it choked her.
“There is nothing for her here after she’s done with university. She’s not the kind of girl who’s going to finish a degree and then come live in a small town,” JJ put it simply. “But with the developments that are coming there’s a good chance she might be able to come home…. With what they’re building here… with the….”
“With that cursed machine?” She cut him short.
“You call it a ‘cursed machine’ and I know you mean cursed literally, Ma. And I cannot blame you. I have not forgotten all I learned growing up under the Dominee. If you take all that nonsense to be literally true, then, yes… it can seem like it’s cursed.”
“It is! Look what it’s doing to our family” Johanna said emphatically.
“Ma… We can’t have this conversation when your frame of reference remains rigid and dogmatic… when you rely on just one source… on the Dominee for your information.”
Johanna’s face was a mask; fierce and unblinking, her son attacking her very foundation.
JJ saw it and softened his approach;
“Please, ma… please know that I have studied psychology and I fully understand the conflicts and fears you are feeling. Your certainty that you are right, that our traditional culture is always right… That is hard to shift inside of yourself… I understand that. You are the matriarch, the mother figure… you cannot afford to be vague in the things you hold dear if you are to be a rock to us all. I can only say to you that while on the one hand I respect that, the world beyond this town is moving fast and you cannot avoid that change coming here too. I want to act as the conduit to help you and Pa to adjust through this difficult time… I am not challenging or insulting you, your culture or your position as my mother. I am just trying to be a good son and give you a different perspective.”
She was listening to him intently trying desperately to subdue the voices inside that screamed at him not to be a foolish young man and to listen to her, the elder.
It was the same rebuke every elder in every generation in every culture through all history of time has felt bursting from within. But Johanna was an intelligent woman and she had a vast respect for her son’s character and integrity.
She used this respect now to remain silent and at least try to meet him on the even ground of reason where her deep emotions were held in check.
“This machine you call cursed—the SKA—it is a telescope… It’s nothing more than that. I think the Dominee is making a big geraas… such a big noise about nothing. I really don’t know what has got into him.”
‘Dominee’ was a trigger word; nobody could criticize a Dominee without his adherents leaping to his defense, but before she could react JJ held and squeezed her hand warmly to quell her.
“… that is all the SKA is—a telescope. It will only read the facts about the universe. And whatever those facts and data say is the way things really are. If there is a God who put those facts and data into the universe and we are made in His image, then our curiosity and ability is all to His Glory. Our discoveries then belong to Him.”
He was deliberately using language that would win her over. She was a much more reasonable person than any of the men—“Come to think of it,” he thought, “most of our women are in the Afrikaner culture are more reasonable… probably because they’re excluded from the hierarchy and so less indoctrinated.”
“I know you have accepted for a lifetime that the universe and mankind came into existence one way,” JJ was talking earnestly, careful in his choice of words, purposefully avoiding saying anything more that was vaguely negative referring to trigger words like ‘Bible’ or ‘Faith’, “…but there are countless ways to interpret stories; to take them literally or dodge ridiculous claims by calling them figurative metaphors. But the data is not vague—it is precise. What can be wrong with precision?”
“You are too clever for me,” his mother said.
She didn’t want to argue either—not if he was leaving now, but his words had reached her as they always did and she would think them through.
She dared betray none of it even to herself, but over the years he’d been winning her over with his persuasive arguments.
“You’re calling the project ‘cursed’, yet it has the potential to bring Sonja home. It will give her an opportunity to come home if that’s the path she chooses…” he paused, looking to clinch it by hitting his mother in the sweet spot; “If I could find opportunity here and through it, I’d come home too.”
His mother looked down and swallowed. There was nothing she wanted more.
“And…” he went on, “…it’s becoming possible… the new airport, the fiber-optic communications. Calling it ‘cursed’ ignores these facts.” He paused, “And Ma, it’s just the pursuit of knowledge… I must say it again… what is ‘wrong’ or ‘cursed’ in looking for knowledge?”
Just then they both heard the police van pull into the driveway—Pa was home for coffee.
Neither of them wanted to be having this conversation when Andre came through the door.
Johanna went out to put a pot on the brew and JJ threw some traveling clothes on, hefted his bag and came out to the kitchen.
The atmosphere in the kitchen was brittle; Pa sat at the kitchen table and eyed JJ.
“Morning Pa,” he greeted his father.
“Were you not going to say goodbye?” His father gestured at the packed travel bags.
His father shook his head slowly as he looked down at those hands that had once held this boy to his breast, spread on the table, dwarfing a steaming coffee mug between them.
“You are my Pa. Why would I leave without saying goodbye?” The silence returned no answer. “This is so unnecessary, Pa. I have no argument with you. We have so much in common… this is nothing for us to trouble over.”
“Ja…” Andre grunted in non-committal disappointment, his mind comprehending nothing of what was being said; only the pain of reaching an impasse and decision walling up his emotions.
“Can we not just be a father and a son?” JJ asked, “And leave all this outside influence outside?”
The awkward silence crackled. Slowly, like a gunfighter of the old West his father lifted his head and a lightening storm of danger threatened in his expression. His heavy-set brows met in the middle, dragged together by the frown of a weighty decision already made, “I wish for my only son to leave my house and not return.”
His voice was a low rumble, only just audible; it sounded like the angry God of old talking through him.
Johanna walked out the back door into the garden and the fly screen crashed closed behind her.
“As Pa wishes,” JJ stood and picked up his bag in his left hand, offering his right to his father.
Andre looked at the hand long and hard then slowly he raised his gaze from JJ’s hand to look his son ferociously in the eye, his own hands never moving from the table “Will my son give me my wish?” he asked throatily.
JJ’s jaw bit and clenched, his face shot through with anguish. He blew a shaft of heartbreak out through his nose, a slow heavy tragic expiration of air, “I love you Pa,” he said, turned and went out through the door, closing the screen so that it did not crash and exaggerate the tensions.
He found his mother down by the weeping willow near the bottom of the garden, her body heaved and choked. She could barely breathe and could not talk.
JJ held her to his chest and she was immobile, stiff as a pillar of salt, shivering with tension. She sobbed softly until the front of his shirt was wet and he held her tighter.
A few minutes later the screen crashed again but Johanna kept her head buried against her son. His own tears were running, one at a time down his cheeks, soaking into his mother’s hair.
There was a light crunch of gravel approaching but neither of them looked around, and suddenly arms wrapped around them both, small delicate arms that held with a furious strength. Johanna went limp at the touch and JJ braced to hold her up as her legs began to buckle.
The three bodies stood in mutual embrace under the coolness of the willow, knotted together as one.
A short time passed.
“Sonja…!” came Andre’s voice from within the house, it sounded mortally wounded. Shock shot through JJ’s body, he’d never heard his father’s voice sound like that and he braced for the worst, not beginning to fathom what that worst may be.
Always-obedient, Sonja was gone—off to hear her father’s whim—a moment later the fly screen crashed. There were no more sounds but the light rapid-fire tugs of breath from his mother, the sobs giving way to the wounded agonies of accepting fate.
“I must go, Ma,” JJ said softly, “but I’ll be back and I’ll fly you down to Cape Town for a holiday.”
He felt her nod, just felt it. He would return, he would come fetch her; he never lied, but something unexpected and precious had died here today.
She felt aged from within, to JJ she felt desperately frail.
For an age they stood together, JJ feeling the eyes from the house on them. Slowly he coaxed her in an edging waltzing embrace onward toward the garden gate that would take them both off his father’s property as requested and around the public sidewalk to the driveway where his car stood.
When they reached the gate they heard the police van’s engine turn. The reverse gear sang its signature yodel and JJ could see the flicker of the van over his mother’s head through the bougainvillea hedge as it backed out and halted in the street.
The van pulled away changing up through the gears—and his father was gone.
In the far distance, they heard the fly screen crash again and moment’s later Sonja was with them.
“Pa says goodbye,” she said. “He asked me to tell you how sorry he is. Ma… he said we must get ready for church now. He’ll be back to fetch us.”
JJ felt his mother’s head move in denial—shaking with tiny movements of resolve, side to side. It was easy to misinterpret but her whisper to herself confirmed her intent “Nooit weer”—she’d never again attend the church.