“Happenstance,” by Ingrid Winterbach

A collection of shells has been stolen from a woman who lives alone.

September has four and a half weeks. In the fourth and last week of the ninth, the first month of spring, the heavens open. There are floods inland. Bridges are washed away along the coast. On television I see a house, a cow, a piano, a pram, borne along from the interior by the seething water masses. As children we experienced something similar on holiday at the South Coast: I clearly recall that the sky was the exact color of the brown mass of water; within hours the bridge we had been standing on had been washed away.

During this time I have a horrifying dream. A severed head is accidentally wrapped up in something resembling plastic or cellophane—the transparent paper that bouquets are often wrapped in. This head is later sawn open to reveal its two inner halves. I try my best to disentangle the web of associations in which the dream could be embedded, but to no avail. I do not believe in premonitions, but the dream and the freak weather make me apprehensive.

After the heaviest rainfall has abated, Sof and I go for a walk on the beach one afternoon. After the storms of the past week the sea is calm, but there is the pungent smell of seaweed and washed-up bamboo. On the horizon is a ship. The air and the sea have the same dull, metallic sheen. We walk in silence, our heads bent forward. I search attentively among the algae and bamboo, among the empty plastic containers, the driftage and flotsam. What do I hope to find? The head of an angel in stone. A shell. Whole and undamaged. A fossil from the sea. An ammonite. A petrified nautilus or a mussel. Something from the Cambrian period. Something dating from the time of the earliest fossilized remains of organisms with hard body parts. But the ocean does not surrender her treasures. Sof finds a wreath of plastic flowers, which seems to have come from the grave of a child.

Sof tells me of a book she is reading. A man undertakes a journey on foot. At the end of each day’s walk he arrives at an inn. He has a light supper, but cannot fall asleep at night, the greater part of which he spends listening to the sounds in the tavern beneath his room, or to the creaking of the floorboards and the occasional calls of night-birds. Only by morning does he fall asleep. The mood of the evening or night is always indicated very simply. A storm brewing over the sea. Dusk descending on a field of heather. The sky darkening and a wind rising abruptly. The sun becoming visible behind the clouds for a moment. A darkness moving in from the horizon.

Sof turns her face toward me. The late afternoon light is suddenly tinted pink, the brooding sky is reflected in the water. Her eyes are grey, the outlines of her face hardly discernible.

“That is how I would have liked to write,” she says. “Without the writer’s voice droning in the background. If I could write, I would want the same distance between myself and what I write about. Do you understand?”

“Not quite,” I say. She points to the horizon. Sky and sea are now one uninterrupted, brooding plane. The ship lies motionless in the distance.
“That’s how I would have liked to write if I could,” she says, “with little happening ostensibly, but everything charged with meaning.”

We walk back slowly. We do not speak much. We are both under the impression of the waning day, the somber hour, the oyster-grey sky, the murky sea, gleaming dully, like a pearl.

Even in the half-dark I still cannot take my eyes off the water line. Little ghost crabs, barely visible, scurry toward the sea. I am still hoping, I am always hoping to find something. Hope maketh not ashamed. I distinguish between two kinds of shells: those that I collect, and those I pick up. Those that I collect are usually larger, unblemished specimens. With a single exception, I acquired all the shells in my collection through buying. This exception is the shell that Joets found more than thirty years ago as we were walking on the beach. I was visiting her. I was nineteen, Joets was twenty-five. She had two young children and she was in an unhappy marriage. She envied me my life. She did not want to be burdened with a husband and two children. She bitterly regretted having ended her studies. She told me that she had started to write, she had started working on a novel. She told me about an idea she had. I listened. I had my own ideas about what I would like to write. Half-formed ideas, spliced with free-floating longing.

We were walking along the beach. Joets spoke about her conception of time. Of the time bomb inside the moth. How one is in fact as solid as one’s breath. Joets was smaller than I was, she took more after our mother’s side of the family. (I, in turn, incline more toward our father’s side.) She was a lovely woman, dark, with a soft, sensual face, like our mother and our wandering grandfather. (I am taller, lankier, blonder, like our father.) At that time she was still smoking heavily.

She does not believe in free will, she said; we are as helpless as a beetle that unsuspectingly lands in a braaivleis fire at night. Like a mantis on a jazz record, she said, and laughed. (Joets could laugh, she could be completely overcome with laughter.) She explained that time does not move horizontally, but that it is constantly rearranged, as in a kaleidoscope. She spoke about the Holy Spirit—she said that she imagined it as a winged egg on a cloud, or a seed with wings, like a pine seed—and that of all things it was the only thing that could become nothing and out of nothing recreate itself again: a miracle, like an aerial root. I listened. I did not understand everything she said. The beach was blue. The rocks a deep blackish blue (so different from the colors of rocks and beach along the Indian ocean). It was late afternoon.

Every little insect, every moth, Joets explained, carries within it the time bomb which will determine its death, and everything ticks together, each according to its own inner circular time with all its tiny cogs and wheels, and in this manner the end speeds closer for all beings, great and small, each appropriate to its own appointed time. Each according to its time bomb within. Only now, she said, does she understand the painting by Picasso of the girl holding the fan in her hand, so much like the rhythm of fate.

Then we found the shell. Joets picked it up and gave it to me. Quite a large shell, something almost fossilized about it, the color of bone—smooth and polished, as if it were carved out of marble. It was my first shell, the predecessor of all the others. It was before I started to collect shells. I never felt the need to identify it, as if it had always had a separate status. Joets was my sister; I loved and admired her.

“The sea is so beautiful, it makes one long for a different life,” Sof says. (Her face is sometimes severe and sometimes shy, but when she speaks, it is always with a disarming intensity.)

“I wonder if there are as many dead souls as there are shells on the beach,” I say. “What does the Bible say?”

“I don’t think there is any reference to shells in the Bible,” she says. “Everything seems so sorrowful to me, and love brings only unhappiness and ruin. I’ve had enough of it.”

“Love ruins and injures us, spoils and damages us; it is pernicious, detrimental, and fatal. Is that what you mean, Sof?”

“Yes,” says Sof, “something like that. Whatever.”

Joets told me during that holiday that she loved someone other than her husband, that she had always loved, and would always love that person. That she nurtured the pain, that it gave her the strength to write. Only once did she ever again refer to this secret love in a letter and then never again, as later she would never again refer to the book I had written. Except during our last telephone conversation.

“Did something happen?” I ask.

“No,” Sof says. “Nothing happened. Every choice I made in my life was the wrong choice.”

“Is it that bad?” “Oh,” she says, “it’s actually okay. It’s not that bad.” We walk in silence for a while. It is already deep twilight.

“I’ve been wondering,” she says, carefully clearing her throat, “whether it wouldn’t help you to think that one cannot possess beauty. That one can only ever be its temporary custodian. Wouldn’t that help with the loss of the shells?” She gives a slight cough.

I reflect for a moment. “No,” I say. “No, it doesn’t help me to think about it like that.”

“In that case,” Sof says, “I think we should buy you some new shells somewhere.”

— translated from the Afrikaans by Ingrid and Dirk Winterbach

Ingrid Winterbach is an artist and writer living in Durban, South Africa. She is the author of nine novels in Afrikaans, including five published under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen. “Happenstance” is adapted from The Book of Happenstance, which will be published by Open Letter Books on June 14.

Read more in Little Star #2.

Also by Ingrid Winterbach, To Hell With Cronje, a fictional reflection on the Boer War, featured in Little Star here.