It was the coldest winter in fifty years, or so the weatherman had said before we’d made the trek out here. I couldn’t argue with him. The snow dusting the barn’s roof and the frozen grass, which had probably been green a month before, was testament to it. I’d woken to find the curtains frozen to the window. My head felt like it had spent the night in the deep freeze, despite my having gone to sleep wearing a beanie and gloves. The heavy blankets were piled on top of me, not that they’d done much to keep the cold out. I was sure my toes had turned blue during the night and would fall off any second. I was not built for cold, especially not this cold.
My mother had insisted that we come out to my grandparents’ farm for the anniversary of my father’s death. It had been his favourite place, and he’d wanted to be buried in the ancient family burial plot, next to his grandfather.
The farm was in the middle of nowhere, completely isolated from the rest of the world. The closest town was a sleepy hollow that time had forgotten, called Volksrust, which in English means People’s Rest. The town was an hour away from the farm and the only roads that led there were rough dirt roads that 4×4 enthusiasts would find difficult to navigate. Volksrust was a town where almost every house had a wagon wheel on their front lawn. Hardly anybody spoke English. In fact they still hated the English because of the two wars of independence they fought against the British Empire. America only had to fight one; South Africa had to fight two. When my father married my mother it had been a huge scandal. This was a town where you married your cousin, not some English woman. My father couldn’t understand why I hated his home town; I always thought it was obvious.
There was no electricity on the farm. My grandparents had wanted to keep the place the way it had been when they were children. My father had also insisted on keeping everything the way it had been when he’d lived here as a child. So no electric heaters or any other modern conveniences for us. My mother had to cook and clean the way women had done two hundred years ago – she hated the farm more than any of us. While my father had been alive we had come out here every school holiday and long weekend, but we hadn’t been back since his death three years ago. The farmhouse was now even more ramshackle than I’d ever remembered it being.
My mother had hung onto my father’s ashes and was finally ready to let them go; pity she couldn’t wait till spring to do it. Once she got an idea in her head, no sense could prevail and she dragged us all out to the frozen farmland where there was not only no electricity but also no cell phone reception. We were completely isolated from the rest of the modern world. My sister, Irene, and I were devastated.
Roger, Irene’s fiancé, had tagged along. Apparently he couldn’t bear to be away from her for a long weekend. Strangely enough the isolation had never bothered us when we were children, but now, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, my silent cell phone made me feel like I’d lost an arm.
My brother, John, was probably the only one who really loved coming here. He and our father had always spent time together doing manly things, like hunting and fishing, while we womenfolk were expected to clean up the layers of dust that had collected since our last visit. Cooking on a coal stove is no joke. But we did have running water and gas heaters in some rooms, so at least we weren’t going to freeze to death over the weekend, I hoped.
The sound of my mother puttering in the kitchen drifted down the passage. I could never figure out how she managed to cook a decent breakfast on a stove that dated back to before the Second Boer War in 1899. My father had been very proud of all the family heirlooms that littered the old house, which had originally been built during the mid-eighteen hundreds.
Irene stirred in the bed on the other side of the room. We slept in what had always been referred to as the girls’ room. John and Roger were in the boys’ room down the passage. Irene couldn’t understand why my mother had separated her from Roger for the weekend. But it was tradition. Ever since we were kids, Irene and I would sleep in the girls’ room and John and one of his friends or our cousins would sleep in the boys’ room. I didn’t think our mother was in the right frame of mind to break with tradition, no matter what Irene and Roger had to say on the subject.
The smell of eggs and bacon tempted me to stick a sock-clad foot out from under the covers.
“Bugger! It’s cold,” I muttered as I slipped the rest of my body out of bed. Grabbing my coat, which I’d draped over a chair at the bottom of my bed, and sticking my feet into my slippers, I made my way to the kitchen. Mom was humming an unfamiliar melody as she cracked an egg into an antique frying pan, which probably belonged in a museum.
“Morning my darling,” Mom said as I kissed her on the cheek.
“Morning,” I grumbled and yawned.
“Why don’t you go sit in the dining room? John’s got a fire going.”
“He’s up early.” John never got out of bed before ten on a weekend.
“He couldn’t sleep,” Mom said.
“That’s not like him.” John usually slept like the dead, not even a gunshot going off next to him could wake him. A friend of his had tried that a few years ago. John had simply pulled the duvet over his head, told the friend to fuck off and went back to sleep.
I pinched a rasher of bacon off the plate next to the stove.
“Hey!” Mom said as she made a mock attempt to smack my hand. The bacon was warm and crisp. Heaven.
The blazing fire in the fireplace, in the corner of the dining room, and the early morning winter sun streaming in through the big bay windows gave it a warm glow. I had no intention of leaving this room for the rest of the day. A snore erupted from the rocking chair where John sat. No wonder his girlfriend never slept over. Roger burst in through the veranda door, slapping his arms and stomping his feet. Melting snow dribbled down his boots, wetting the floor.
“What on earth were you doing outside?” My voice rose a few octaves higher than normal. I was shocked that someone could be stupid enough to venture out.
“It’s really beautiful out there. It’s the perfect light to take some pictures,” he said as he brandished his Nikon and snapped a shot of me. He didn’t use a digital camera; he said it wasn’t real photography if you didn’t use film. Roger took beautiful pictures, but I wasn’t too impressed with him taking a photo of me wearing my coat, beanie, and slippers – not exactly a good look for me.
“What do you know about those two graves next to the barn?” Roger asked while he fiddled with his camera. “I thought the graveyard was on the other side of the field, close to the river?”
“The family graveyard is across the field, where we’ll be putting Dad’s ashes this weekend,” I replied. “But those two graves next to the barn belong to soldiers who fought in the Second Boer War. A Boer soldier and a British soldier. It’s sort of a memorial to all the soldiers who died here. One for each side.”
“I didn’t realise there was so much history here,” Roger said, looking around the room as though he expected to see some historical figure walk in.
“Yup. Lots of history. Dad would have loved you, somebody who would actually have enjoyed his stories about this place and all its ghosts,” I said as I plopped down on one of the dining room chairs.
“Ghosts?” Roger asked, his ears practically pricked like one of our dogs.
“Didn’t Irene tell you? This place is haunted.” I couldn’t help the smile that crept across my face as Roger’s face turned white. “Dad always used to tell us the stories while we roasted marshmallows over the fire when we were little.”
Mom picked that moment to put breakfast on the table.
“Julie, stop scaring the boy,” Mom said as she put two eggs on a plate, along with some bacon and fried tomato. She put the plate down in front of me and started dishing another plate.
“He’s not a boy, Mom,” I said, and shoved a piece of bacon into my mouth.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full and go wake your sister. She’ll be upset if she misses breakfast.”
“Yes, Mother.” I stomped my way to our bedroom. “Wakey! Wakey! Eggs and bacey!” I shouted from the bedroom doorway.
“Julie,” Mom said, scowling at my unladylike behaviour.
“What?” I asked with a shrug as I walked back into the dining room. “You said to wake her up. She’s up.” I looked at John sleeping in the rocking chair. “What about him?” I asked pointing my thumb in his direction.
“You can try,” Mom said.
“Johnny” I whispered as I shook him gently by the shoulders. His eyes shot open, giving me a fright.
“I’m awake,” he said. “Have been the whole time.”
“Oh,” I said as I sat back down on my chair. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“Didn’t want to interrupt your conversation with Roger.”
“You wouldn’t have interrupted,” Roger said, the words stumbling over each other in their hurry to get out of his mouth.
Irene shuffled into the room and gave me a look that let me know in no uncertain terms that she didn’t appreciate my impersonation of an alarm clock. She then placed a gentle kiss on Roger’s cheek before sitting down next to him.
“I had the strangest dream last night,” Irene said, as Mom put a plate of food in front of her.
“So did I,” Roger said. “What was yours about?”
“I just remember that there was a lot of blood and people were screaming. It was so strange. I never have nightmares. Julie’s the one who usually has bad dreams,” Irene said, giving me a strange quizzical look.
“Don’t look at me,” I said, popping another piece of bacon in my mouth. “Except for the whole sleeping in a fridge thing, I slept like a baby.” Mom scowled at me for talking with my mouth full again.
“What about you, Roger? What did you dream about?” Irene asked him.
“There was a soldier.” Roger cocked his head as he tried to remember. “He was wearing the red coat the English soldiers always wear in those historical war movies, and he had a bayonet. I think he was trying to tell me something … Something about bones. I wish I could remember more. It’s frustrating. That’s why I asked Julie about the graves at the barn.”
“You think you had a visit from the English soldier that’s buried here,” John said. It was more of a statement than a question.
“I don’t know,” Roger said looking down at his food. “It was just so real.”
There was a strained silence as we all stared at Roger.
“Because it was,” John muttered, staring into the fire.
“Well, enough of that,” Mom piped up before any of us could ask John what he meant. “Philamon, the new caretaker, stopped by earlier,” Mom continued, pointedly changing the subject. “He was on his way to the graveyard. He said that the ground is frozen and that he can’t dig a hole to put Daddy in. He also said that if he did manage to dig him a normal grave, when the river rises in the summer, Daddy will rise up with it. So …” She took a deep breath. “He’s going to break a hole in the cement that covers your great grandfather’s grave and we’ll put your father’s ashes in there. The wooden box he’s in is small enough. I’m sure he would have been happy about that. He wanted to be close to his grandfather. Heaven only knows why, but that’s what he wanted. I never denied him a request while he was alive; I’m certainly not going to start now.” Mom turned away from us as she wiped a tear off her cheek and took another deep breath.
“Mom,” Irene and I said in unison as we both got up to give her a hug. I wondered if she’d ever move on with her life or if my father’s murder would haunt her forever.
The thin layer of snow and ice covering my great grandfather’s headstone started to melt as we gathered around it. Any moment I expected a crow to land on one of the broken or cracked headstones that jutted out of the frozen ground around us. It always creeped me out, standing amongst my ancestors.
Twenty years ago the river had flooded so badly that their skeletons had floated up, out of their graves. It had unfortunately been during one of our visits to the farm. I’d watched in horror as my father, grandparents, and some of the farm workers had collected the bones and put them back into the graves. It was the first time in the farm’s history that the river had risen that high. My father had then decided to encase all the graves with concrete. I’d always wondered if they’d put all the right bones in the right graves, or if bits and pieces had found their way into someone else’s final resting place. Witnessing that as a child explained a few things about me; it certainly explained the nightmares I still had.
Philamon stood outside the graveyard watching us, a pick-axe slung over his right shoulder. The recent farm murders in the area made his stance seem more menacing than it probably was. The sight of him holding, so casually, something that could put a large hole in my skull made me want to run back to the house and grab one of the hunting rifles. I didn’t have a clue what I would do with the rifle once I had it; I just knew that holding it would make me feel a whole lot safer. Especially after the way my father had been killed.
With tears running down her cheeks, Mom placed the wooden box containing Dad’s ashes into the hole in my great grandfather’s grave. Irene stood next to her, trying to comfort her. We’d all been comforting her for three years, and I was all out of sympathy. Having to hug her every time she burst into tears was becoming a chore. I wasn’t sure if it was the cold, or if the last three years had just taken their toll. I was numb. Letting go was past its sell by date.
We each placed a pebble on the headstone to show our respect and remembrance. There weren’t any flowers to pick and even if we’d brought some with us, they wouldn’t have lasted; they’d only have ended up dead and frozen by the end of the day. Irene and John half carried Mom out of the graveyard, her body racked by uncontrollable sobs. One would have thought Dad had just died. Roger and I trailed behind them.
“Philamon,” Roger said, pausing in front of the caretaker.
“Ja baas,” Philamon said, with a tired, lazy voice.
“What do you know about those two graves at the barn?”
“Eish, the Englisher and the Boer?”
“Yes, them,” Roger said, getting excited.
“The men from the government, they come and take the bones of the Englisher away a few months ago. Very bad luck. His spirit is very angry. The spirits, they do not like it when their bones are taken. They must have bones to be quiet.” Philamon shook his head. “Very bad luck,” he muttered as he went back to the graveyard to cover the hole that was now my father’s grave.
“What superstitious nonsense,” I said, as we walked back. Roger didn’t say a word.
The sun disappeared at three o’clock that afternoon, and with the darkness came the snow. More snow than I’ve ever seen before. It silenced the world around us and enveloped us in a cold, white cocoon. John got the fire going, once again, in the dining room, while Irene and I lit the candles. Mom sat at the table sniffing and wringing her white handkerchief. It had once been my father’s; his initials J.G. were monogrammed on the one corner. An air-pocket trapped inside a piece of wood popped, sending sparks flying towards the moth-eaten Persian rug that had covered the wooden floor since before I was born. A spark landed close to my foot and set fire to the carpet. Roger stomped it out before I had a chance to move my foot. He hadn’t said much since his chat with Philamon. He flopped down on one of the rocking chairs in front of the fire and chewed at a non-existent hangnail while he stared at the flames.
“You okay, bru?” John asked, as he slapped Roger’s knee.
“Hmmm, what did you say?” Roger asked, tearing his eyes away from the fire.
“Are you okay, Sweetie?” Irene asked.
“I’m fine,” Roger said and returned his attention to the flames. “I was just thinking about the English soldier’s grave …”
“What is it about that guy’s grave that has you so obsessed?” I asked. My tone was a little harsher than I’d intended it to be. “Not even Daddy found it that interesting.” His obsession was starting to irritate me. I didn’t think I could handle an entire weekend of Roger obsessing about an old grave that didn’t even have a skeleton in it anymore.
“It must have been him,” Roger muttered to himself. “It could only have been him.”
“What are you on about?” I asked.
“My dream last night.” Roger looked at me, a strange look in his bloodshot eyes. “You said this place was haunted. Well … what if last night wasn’t a dream? What if he was really there?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Irene said, before I could.
“He’s not being ridiculous,” John piped up from his rocking chair. “I saw him too.”
“Enough,” Mom said with a tear strained voice as she stood up. “We are here to say goodbye to your father, not to tell ghost stories.”
We watched in stunned silence as she stormed out of the room.
“What do you mean you saw him too?” Roger asked, once Mom’s footsteps had disappeared down the passage towards her bedroom.
“I also saw him last night, I just didn’t want to say anything till I was sure,” John said. “The old man told me about him, when we were kids. Our great, great Grandmother caught him in the house and shot him, right there in the boys’ room. But I think it’s the first time he’s made a proper appearance.”
“What happened to her?” Irene asked.
“I can’t remember the whole story, but I think she died in a concentration camp from dysentery or some or other really crappy disease.”
“What a horrible way to go,” Irene said.
“Not nearly as bad as the way Daddy was killed.” I was the queen of saying the wrong thing at the right time. That little line squashed the mood. None of us wanted or needed to be reminded of how he’d been killed. Four men wearing balaclavas and wielding machetes had broken in. They’d been after the guns he kept in the house. Mom had heard them and had had the presence of mind to lock herself in the bedroom and called for help. But help hadn’t arrived in time to stop them hacking him to death. He’d died slowly and in pain. The thought made me shiver, and fresh tears threatened to force their way out of my eyes. My throat tightened as I fought for control of my emotions. Mom wasn’t the only one who hadn’t completely let go.
After dinner, the mood was subdued. We were probably thinking the same things. John and Roger both seeing the English soldier last night had put us all in a spin. Mom didn’t want to hear about it and as a result dinner had been a quiet affair. Irene gave Roger a few strange looks over her plate that I had trouble interpreting; I wasn’t sure I really wanted to interpret them. Irene and I went to bed early, not that either of us could sleep. We heard Roger and John talking in hushed tones in the dining room. Their disembodied voices drifted on the cold air. Although the outside walls of the house were thick, the walls inside the house were as thin as plasterboard, but I still couldn’t make out what was being said. I imagined them sitting in front of the fire, their heads bent, whispering like conspirators, plotting something nefarious. They talked for an hour after the rest of us went to bed.
The wooden floors creaked as they walked down the passage. Once the door to the boys’ room was closed behind them, I was finally able to get some sleep, but it didn’t last long.
A strangled scream penetrated my sleep fogged mind. I stumbled out of bed, tripped over one of Irene’s bags. Candle light danced on the walls in the passage. The rest of the family gathered outside the boys’ room. We were all groggy, all of us except John. John looked scared. John was never scared.
“Where’s Roger?” I asked. No one answered. Mom wore a pair of my father’s old pyjamas and held a candle out in front of her. She was the only one who looked more awake than a sleep. Her maternal senses kicking in. I’d seen her look like that on more than one occasion when I was a child. My screams had woken her up in the middle of the night, my nightmares had made for many a sleepless night, but this time I hadn’t been the one screaming.
“Where’s Roger?” I asked again. John simply shook his head. Shock and something else, which I didn’t recognise, twisted his face. It was only then that I noticed the blood. His hands and feet were covered in it.
“John.” Mom was holding him with one arm while still holding the candle with her other hand. I didn’t even notice her move. “John, you need to talk to me.” Her tone was gentle yet strong. “You need to tell us what happened. Are you hurt?” She asked as her eyes searched for any visible wounds.
Irene swept passed me and stormed into the bedroom and promptly let go of a blood curdling scream. The pain in her scream made my stomach turn to water and my legs start to shake. I didn’t want to go into that room, but knew I had to. I had to see.
Roger’s corpse lay on his blood soaked bed. His throat had been ripped out and his chest had been turned into a sieve. Blood seeped through his mattress and I heard the drops of blood splat as they hit the wooden floor. Bile rose from my stomach and up my throat. Irene stood frozen next to me staring at something in the corner, opposite Roger’s bed. It took me a few moments to realise what she was staring at. A man in a red uniform, holding a bloody bayonet, was looking at us. He wanted something from us. It was as though he was speaking to us without using actual words. He wanted Roger’s bones, and if we didn’t give him Roger’s bones, he would kill John and every other white man that set foot on the farm until he got what he wanted. Philamon’s words about the bones came back to me. If only I hadn’t dismissed them as being superstitious nonsense.
Irene and I stumbled out of the room, holding on to each other, struggling to breathe.
“We need to leave right now.” My voice was hoarse and sounded strange to my own ears.
“What the devil is going on?” Mom screeched.
“We need to get out of here right now. Don’t argue, just move,” I said as I shoved my mother towards the kitchen and the back door. The car was parked in the barn and the kitchen door was the fastest way of getting to it. John took Mom’s candle and led the way in silence. The car keys were on the kitchen counter. Irene grabbed them as John unlocked the back door. Ice cold air knocked the breath out of our lungs as we stepped outside. Snow and wind gusted around us and blew out our candle. Our sock-clad feet sunk into the snow. Our pyjamas were not warm enough. We hadn’t had the time or the presence of mind to grab our coats or shoes.
We were wet and frozen when we reached the barn, the double corrugated-iron doors shook as the wind smacked into them. Rats scattered as we pushed the doors open. The car was John’s double cab Ford four by four. It was the only vehicle that any of us possessed that could handle the dirt roads out here. We climbed into the Ford and waited for John to start the engine. John turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. He turned it again and all we heard was tick tick tick. The battery was as dead as Roger. John rested his forehead against the steering wheel and sighed. It was a sigh that held all the sadness and resignation of an impending death.
“We could walk to the nearest farm,” Irene said, a small tinge of hope in her voice. It was the calm before the storm. Being calm in a bad situation was a family trait. When it was over we would all fall apart.
“On foot it would take hours. Even with the right clothes on, we’d freeze to death before we reached the Van der Westhuizen’s place,” John said.
“Would someone please tell me what is going on?” Mom asked.
“Roger is dead, the English soldier is pissed, and he’s going to kill me next if we don’t bury Roger’s body in his grave. Does that about sum it up?” John looked over his shoulder at Irene and myself.
“You heard him too?” Irene asked. John and I nodded.
“Well … we can’t stay here,” Irene finally said.
“So … what do we do?” I asked, already knowing the answer, but I needed someone else to say it.
“We do what we have to,” John said as he climbed out of the Ford.
The sky was lighter when we emerged from the darkness of the barn. The new day didn’t make the situation seem any brighter. I held onto the hope that it had all been a horrible mass hallucination caused by smoke inhalation or that Roger had played a really nasty trick on us. I held onto the hope that when we got back inside the house, Roger would be awake and sitting by the fire, playing with his camera. But he wasn’t. We huddled into the boys’ room. Roger was exactly where we’d left him, dead in his own blood. Irene cried when she saw his body again. I couldn’t cry, not yet.
John and I looked at each other and nodded. John took Roger’s feet and I took his hands. We carried him out through the kitchen; a trail of blood followed us.
“Maybe we should put some shoes on this time?” I asked as we reached the small patio outside the Kitchen door.
“Good idea,” John said and lowered Roger’s feet onto the cement floor.
The dry socks, boots and warm coat made me feel human again. Almost. Roger’s corpse was heavy and by the time we reached the two graves, my back was killing me. The graves were encased in concrete and the black marble headstones were engraved with the dates on which each soldier had been killed. There were no names. They were simply called the unknown soldiers. Only their countries were used as identifiers. The grave on the right belonged to the English soldier.
John left me alone with Roger’s body while he went back to the barn to fetch the pickaxe that Philamon had used for my father’s grave. I shivered and choked back the tears and the nausea as I looked down at Roger’s bloody face. He would never smile or snap a picture again. He would never ruffle my hair or give me advice about men. I wanted to scream into the wind, but it just got stuck in my throat. I didn’t hear John as he came up behind me. I barely felt it when he put his arms around me.
“It’s going to be okay,” he whispered into my hair. “I don’t know how, but we’re going to get through this.”
“I know.” I looked at the concrete and blinked the tears away. “The concrete’s frozen, so it should shatter if you smack it hard enough.”
“Well, don’t you sound like a building engineer,” John said as he ruffled my hair.
“Nah, I’m just trying to sound intelligent. Someone has to.” The smile I plastered on my face felt all wrong. Would it ever feel right to smile again?
It took a few hard blows from the pickaxe to shatter the concrete. We lifted the broken pieces off and then had to dig through the hard, frozen ground. By the time the sun was high in the sky, we were caked in blood and dirt, but we’d managed to dig a hole big enough to fit Roger in. We placed him inside it as gently as we could. Irene’s sniff startled me. She and Mom stood behind us. Both their faces were red and blotchy from crying. We all took turns to shovel the dirt back into the grave. I shivered each time I heard the sand hit his body.
It was dark again by the time we’d gotten the concrete laid. We hadn’t done a fantastic job. It would probably crack, but it was done. We’d have to give Philamon a raise. The English soldier’s diaphanous form stood at the edge of the grave looking at us. I couldn’t decipher his expression and then he simply disappeared. Maybe both Roger and the English soldier would be able to find some peace. Hopefully we’d be able to get home, but I doubted any of us would ever be able to set foot on the farm again. Then there was the question of explaining Roger’s disappearance. But that was something I’d worry about later, when we were safely home.
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