If you haven’t read “Scorched Earth” on my Patreon page, you can read it below. The ‘behind the scenes’ starts after the story.
I watched as smoke from the burning farmhouse furled into the sky. Arguing voices pulled me away from the ghost shapes in the smoke.
Tante Maria was struggling to get onto the wagon while clutching the large family Bible in one arm.
“I’m not leaving it!” she shouted at the khaki-clad soldier, not caring whether or not he understood what she was saying. “Our family’s history is in that Bible!”
“Give it to me,” I said, forcing myself into the present with its horror of the burning house, the slaughtered animals, the false notes of the piano being hacked to pieces to become part of a cooking fire.
Maria paused and then handed me the Bible with shaking hands. She struggled to get onto the wagon in her long dress. One of the soldiers laughed at another’s crude joke and I clutched the Bible tighter, wishing it would bring me some comfort. Precariously seated, Maria reached down and took the Bible from me, placing it reverentially on her lap. She started reciting Psalm 91, hands clutched together.
“Ik zal tot den Heere seggen: Mijn Toevlucht en mij Burg! Mijn God, op Welen ik vertrouw!” Tears flowed over her cheeks as she watched her house burn to the ground.
I swallowed hard. I was supposed to have been safe here. Johannes promised me. Smoke blew in our direction and, for a moment, covered the stench of the animal carcasses.
I didn’t want to see the ghosts again, but here they were; fallen comrades who even in death remained with their brothers in arms.
Where in heaven’s name is Johannes? He promised the day he left he wouldn’t go far. Promised he would not let them burn this farm like the others. In my mind I kept on reciting the Psalm, trying to feel the angels and their wings around me, keeping me safe.
Johannes’ voice sounded in my ears as I turned to climb onto the wagon.
“Want Hij zal Zijn engelen vam u bevelen, dat sij u bewaren in al uw wegen.”
I looked around and spotted him standing some way off. Still dressed in simple clothes, he no longer held a Mauser in his hands. His chest was covered in dark blood and sand crusted his face. I wanted to wipe it away, to tell him it’s alright. I wanted to beat his chest and ask him how he could have left me. How he could let me go to the camps. How he dared recite the Bible to me.
I jumped when a young soldier touched my arm and I stepped back.
“Jy sien ook?” he asked, the words barely recognisable. “You see them as well?” he repeated in English, his eyes pleading.
“See what?” I shrugged and climbed onto the wagon, sitting down next to Maria.
The young soldier folded his arms around him, eyes darting from ghost to ghost.
I stared down at my soot-covered hands.
Behind the scenes
Written originally as the May story for my patrons over on Patreon, it was supposed to be a simple historical fiction story, but it morphed into speculative fiction as I was writing. (No surprise there, actually.)
I had been filing some photos on my laptop and came across some photos of the memorial* in Bloemfontein (Free State), that is in honour of the women and children who died in the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).
The story takes place during the scorched earth policy on a farm being attacked and burned down. I didn’t want to paint a sweeping portrait of what was happening and why (this wasn’t supposed to be a history lesson, after all), and focused only on a small happening within the larger attack.
The use of language
This is, I think, the first time I used three languages in one story, but there wasn’t an Afrikaans translation of the Bible until 1933, and the Dutch Bible was used before that. I was also thinking of Engela van Rooyen’s book Vuur op die horison (Fire on the horison), in which she switches between Afrikaans and English depending on the character speaking, etc. (Stealing for fun, of course.)
Readers who aren’t Christian probably won’t know Psalm 91, but I knew that they would know, more likely than not, that Psalms is from the Bible. And that would convey enough meaning even though it is more poignant if you understand what she is reciting:
Psalm 91 King James Version (KJV)
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
The supernatural elements that came to the fore came out of nowhere, that is to say, I didn’t think about putting them in until the character suddenly saw the figures of fallen soldiers in the smoke. And that is also when the other soldier, who can also see the ghosts, made his appearance. Which helped greatly as I didn’t want the soldiers to all just be the faceless bad guys.
* Photos of the memorial taken by me.