Sins of the Fathers

Sins of the Fathers

The Sins of the Fathers

The folds of the world hide many strange things and some of them hide secrets you'd
rather not want to know about

“I don’t want to see him,” said my father adamantly while staring straight ahead into the
darkness. Outside, shadows danced lethargically to the sad beat of their host bodies in the
dim firelight of the torches set amongst the graves.
“Nor I.” Jeb almost shouted out loud. Jeb was the fourth son of twelve, my farther the
“But he’s still your father…” My father’s stiletto-look stopped my mother dead in her
Zebediah stood sullenly in the corner of the small room. The bulk of his corpulent wife
dwarfed his stooped stature, sending a clear message to the other occupants in the room
that he was not going anywhere either. “If I could get my hands on him…!” she swore
under her heavy breath.
“Quiet Mara! Women don’t go near the graves unless they’re dead; you know that!”
Aaron said. “Ezekiel, you’re the oldest of us. You decide who goes.”
My father’s gaze flittered through the room. Jeb, Zebediah, Aaron, Joachim, Jacob and
Benjamin. All six of my father’s remaining brothers were present. Together with their
three remaining wives and my mother, the small room appeared ready to burst at the
seams. I was there as well as Aaron’s eldest son. My father’s eyes swept across the room,
then over me and came to stop six inches above the low bed on the far side of the room.
“Zachariah will go and Caleb will help him carry Mother’s stretcher.” He jerked a
shoulder in my cousin’s direction without looking either of us in the eye. “That’s it, it’s
settled.” He sighed and turned away, hunching his shoulders over the bare table. Caleb
and I stared at each. Our mothers avoided one another’s eyes. We left the room silently,
knowing what we had to do.
Far to the North in South West Africa, as we knew the country back then, locked in
between the Kunene River to the north, the Hoanib River to the south, the Skeleton Coast
to the west, and the formidable Otjihipa Mountains that rose abruptly above the Namib
floor to form the eastern boundary, lays the Kaokoland. It is a dry place; a dead place
where virtually nothing grew and even less survived. This is where my Grandfather chose
to live, preferring the land where his father settled, over the civilized culture of his
German forebears. He farmed a stretch of brittle desert in Hartmann's valley, closer to the
Atlantic than the Marienfluss but much more arid. It has an eerie atmosphere when the
sea mists drift inland, covering the barren desert floor in glistening dew, momentarily,
leaving a salty taste in your mouth. It is the land of the Himba, the remnants of the
earliest Hereros who migrated there in the 16th century but of whom the majority left the
dry, fragile environment again in the 18th century, in search of greener pastures further
south. That was before the Whiteman came and claimed their land. It is from this People
that my Grandmother stemmed, the woman whose frail black body we were about to inter
with her husband, where he has been lying for twenty-five years waiting patiently for her
imminent arrival. It is also in this Godforsaken parched expanse our family gathered for
the so-many-eth time to lay the tormented body of one of our own to rest.
The Cemetery was ancient. The earth was red and dry and large scraggily looking trees
with shallow roots sprouted from its surface. Many of the gravestones were small and
nondescript, whilst others were large and ornate, adorned with angels and ogres. People
have come here for generations to bury their dead. Before the Whiteman, the Himba,
before the Himba, the Herero, before the Herero, the Bushman. In the old days, people
came with ox wagons and tents and camped near the spring while mourning their dead.
The hot spring water had to be cooled down for consumption, but was never near fit for
drinking. It left a sulphurous taste in your mouth which took weeks to get rid of. If you
were lucky, you only had to drink it two or three times in a lifetime. If you had large
families like ours, you eventually grew accustomed to the taste. Nowadays people don’t
camp in wagons and tents anymore, they stayed at the Inn. It had no name and was built
from desert rocks laboriously carried here from a place equally desolate. It was shaped
with hammers, chisels and the sweat of scores of convicts in Victorian times, many who
were unceremoniously buried in the cemetery in unmarked graves. It was built like a
rectangle cell block with four floors and numerous small rooms like the one my family
was crammed into. High ceilings disappeared overhead into obscurity and dim lights
shone from its small widows.
There was no wind and I could hear the individual sand particles crunch beneath our
boots as we trudged behind the man with the spade, carrying the frail remains of our
Grandmother. The section of the cemetery where our family was buried was some
distance from the Inn, over a ridge. It was like most of the other families’ plots; amongst
those of others and shrouded in eeriness. All around us were burial processions, some
carrying ornate coffins with family members trailing behind. We were alone, my cousin,
the man with the spade and I. At last, just as I thought my arms would tear from their
sockets, the man threw down the spade in the moonlight, indicating that we had reached
the Hartmann plot. He wiped his brow with his grimy cap and the polished dome of his
head glistened momentarily in the moonlight. White cottony hair hung like a fringe
around the back of his head, touching the frayed collar of his shirt. I could see large
flecks or freckles on the polished dome in the moonlight before he whipped the cap back
on, pulling the peak deep down in his neck. Then he bent to retrieve the spade and
opened my Grandfather’s grave. It was shallow, not more than two feet deep. The arid
desert did not allow holes deeper than that to be dug. Quickly, from beneath the dry
sandy earth appeared a huge Blackwood coffin. Its lid was split into two sections, the top
section to reveal the face, the lower section to reveal the rest. He opened the top section
first. It swung back noiselessly, red sand sliding off the lacquered wood. There was my
Grandfather, exactly as I always pictured him. Memories of me as a small boy and later
as a young man, helping to carry one relative after another to their waiting graves,
flooded across the vast plains of my memory like the dark waters of a gentle desert river,
swelling over the restraints of its shallow banks, miles away from its tormented source;
black water, silently disappearing in the night. Four of my Father’s brothers, five wives
and twelve children lay orderly around us. One day, I suppose, I will make my final
journey here as well.
He looked so peaceful, eyes closed, mouth relaxed, the skin over his cheeks everything
but taught, as if in a deep sleep. The man moved over and swung away the lower section
of the coffin. His feet were clad in rough brown leather farmer’s boots, the ones he wore
whilst toiling in the fields when he was still alive, not the smooth polished black leather
shoes one would expect with a Sunday-best suit. The deep mauve velvet lined space next
to him was empty, waiting patiently for my grandmother. I admired the crispness of his
starched shirt and reached out to touch it. But the little boy in me tugged back my hand,
too afraid to touch the huge figure that silently dominated my family; even in death.
But the strangest was yet to come. At his feet lay sprawled the body of a young girl. Her
body was curled in a classic fetal position, innocence written in the feint smile around her
lips, seemingly sleeping the sleep of the guiltless. She lay on her tummy, with her hands
under her head. Her one leg was pulled up towards her body, the other straightened along
the breath of the double-side-by-side coffin. Her cheeks rosy in the flickering torch light,
her hair dark as ebony, shiny like it was washed and dried in the sun this very day.
Everything around us was quiet. No wind disturbed the moment. No voices floated to us
over the quietness of the air. I bent down, looking at the beautiful child. She was so
beautiful. The gravestone simply said, Hannah 1929 – 1935. She died a young child,
peaceful and unravished by the passing of two world wars, untouched by the relentless
Kaokoland sun. She was the thirteenth, the youngest of my Grandfather’s children; sister
to my father and his eleven brothers of whom six remained. Then she moved. She
stretched her arms and her legs and curled up at my Grandfather’s feet, a serene smile
still on her lips. I did not jump away in fright. It was as if I expected it. She lay on a heap
of soft velvet blankets, swaddled in sleepy comfort. I touched her face, stroking her soft
cheek. It was warm under my fingers, and yielding. It was as if everything else ceased to
exist around me. It was just this beautiful child and I. This one who knew nothing of
hardship, nothing of the pain a family can cause, nothing of the horrors one human can
bestow on another. She turned her face into my hand and opened her eyes. She smiled
revealing small white perfectly even teeth, sparkling in the torchlight. I looked deep into
her eyes and she into mine. My cousin still stood with my inert cold Grandmother in his
arms. Barely nothing of her once statuesque form and regal African features remained. A
hundred-and-two years made sure almost nothing remained of her. He was waiting for the
man with the spade to go about his business, preparing her final resting place. The man
climbed into the coffin, creating a cocoon-like structure in the soft bedding for her,
apparently oblivious of what was taking place at his feet. The girl squirmed, clamping my
hand between her face and shoulder. She smiled and stretched out her arms up for me to
pick her up. As if in a trance, I picked her up out of the coffin and cradled her in my
arms. She wrapped her arms around my neck and her small white teeth glistened wet in
the torchlight. I was amazed at her and smiled back with my own worried lips. She
reached for my hand and touched it gently against her soft cheek. In the coffin, my
Grandfather moved his right arm over his chest as if disturbed in his slumber. I sucked in
my breath. The child looked at her father and smiled at him, all the time not making a
sound. Caleb bent down and carefully laid my grandmother next to her husband. He
gently arranged the blankets comfortably around her emaciated body as if to make her
comfortable for a long well-deserved sleep. When he was finished, he stood back to look
at them. Two people who loved each other in life, finally reunited in death; her dark
African features in stark contrast against his pale Germanic complexion. We wondered at
their vastly different backgrounds and how they came to love each other; he, the invader,
she, the victim. Caleb turned to me, seemingly oblivious of Hannah’s existence. Slowly
he nodded at me, silently saying he would take care of the rest and that I should go. Thus
I took my charge and returned to the Inn where the family awaited my return, totally
unaware of what I was bringing back from the grave. As I turned away, she waved at the
old man with the scuffed brown boots lying silently in the coffin.
I labored up the last few stairs to the small cramped room on the third floor of the Inn and
stopped in front of the scarred wooden door that separated us from our family. I looked at
the little girl in my arms. Her cheeks were redder than apples and it was difficult to
distinguish the African blood in her features. Grandfather’s genes came through strong in
her. She smiled at me, widening her eyes as if in anticipation. As if she knew who waited
on the other side of the door. I turned the knob and swung the door open with my foot.
Two-score eyes stared at me, at us. Only Zebediah’s were still cast down where he
cowered in his corner, seemingly busy with matters on a different plane, oblivious of the
grave matters at hand. Father approached first.
“Zachariah? Whose this you brought with you?” He asked. I looked at my charge again. I
smiled. Then at him, “Look Father, look closer, you know her, don’t you? Don’t you
recognize her?”
My father looked nonplussed. He came closer. Looked at me, looked at her. “Who are
you child? You look so familiar, you must be fam…” His stretched out hand was frozen
in mid-air, his gaze transfixed to her smile. “Zach? Who is this?” He sounded alarmed.
“Where did you find her?” His hand dropped to her pretty yellow dress - a Sunday dress,
completely out of place in this dark and ominous night.
“Father! Don’t you recognize her? I found her with Grandfather. I know it…”
“Hannah?” my father’s hoarse voice interrupted mine.
“No! What are you doing here with her?” Was my mother’s first reaction. “But look Dad,
she is alive!” I said, ignoring my mother and lowering the girl to the ground where she
stood on her own legs, smiling up at my Dad. The look in my Dad’s eyes was one of
amazement and unbelief. He bend down and peered in the girl’s face. “Hannah?” He said
softly. She ran to him and wrapped her arms around his neck at the sound of her name.
Shouts of astonishment filled the tiny room. “No!” “It can’t be!” “It’s a cruel joke!”
“Heaven help us!” Their shouts went on and on but one by one they came closer to peer
at little Hannah and she just smiled right back at all their scowling surly faces. She
reached out to her brothers as they came closer and kissed those that came close enough.
All the time she said not a single word.
Both my parents looked old and tired, my father more so than my mother. He was sixty,
she was ten years younger, but the hardships of their lives made them appear a decade
older. Suddenly my father picked Hannah up in his arms and walked with her towards a
light, so that he could see her better. His eyes sparkled like I have not seen them in all my
thirty years. Mother stood gravely pressed against the wall in utter silence.
“Dad, Grandfather…” My father froze with Hannah balanced in mid air. Slowly he
turned around; his eyes wide like huge black pearls.
“What about the b… What about him, son?”
“Well, I’m not sure but I could swear I saw him move too.” Gasps echoed through the
room. Even Zebediah peered with scared eyes from under his filthy rimmed hat.
“No! Him too? Where is he, is he coming?” The old man protectively tried to shield the
little girl in his arms.
“No, he is still in his coffin.”
“Go tell the man to close the grave. Now! I don’t want him here! I don’t want him back
in my life! He can stay where he is forever!” A cry of anguish escaped his lips as he
swung around and my mother ran to his side. His voice frightened me. I had never seen
him this terrified before. My mother fidgeted nervously, stroked his hair and whispered
bold nothings in his ear; but her face was painted with fear.
But Father, why? What happened? What did he do to you that was so bad?!” My father
turned abruptly, facing me. The fear in his eyes sent new waves of terror down my spine.
But even that could not prepare me for what was to come. He put Hannah down. She
skipped over to Aaron and he drew her close to his side, hugging her to his leg. Slowly,
my father walked towards me and came to a stop with his face barely inches from mine.
“What did he do to me?” He whispered hoarsely, spittle flying in my face. “What did he
do to us?” he shouted over my shoulder at his brothers. All grown men, all made burley
from daily toil under the African sun; they all cowered now like frightened hogs that sees
the slaughter-man approaching. “I’ll show you what he did to us!” Shouts of ‘no’ rose
from my uncles behind me as my father grabbed my head between his two gnarled hands
and a blinding flash of light carried me to oblivion.
When I opened my eyes, I was in pain. Great pain. I tried to open my eyes but they stung
as if they had been dipped in acid. I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the irritation
in my eyes. I tried to touch my face, but could not move my arms. I forced my eyes to
open to see where I was. All I could see was the red earth of the desert below me. Slowly
I became aware of smells, sounds, other objects moving in and out of my strained vision.
My arms felt as if they were going to tear from their sockets. I could not see them, neither
could I move them. What felt like the heat of a million suns burnt into the flesh on my
back. The pungent smell of large animals raced in and out of my nose and mouth, along
with my boiling breath. Then I saw feet next to mine. Bovine feet, the huge cloven feet of
oxen and I realized I was tied by my arms to a yoke between two oxen, my feet barely
touching the ground, forced to keep pace with the huge burdened beasts. I cried out as
loud as my ghastly state would allow me and turned my head to see what’s behind. What
I saw was the black silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders, topped by a wide-brimmed
hat. Then the sharp tip of the bullwhip struck me across the cheek, laying it bare to the
bone with blood pouring out of the wound and disappearing into the thirsty sun-baked
earth beneath my feet. The force of the blow knocked me unconscious and I slipped away
in tormented oblivion, my feet dragging helplessly through the red dessert sand.
I opened my eyes. I was lying on the bare wooden floor of the cramped little room of the
Inn at the graveyard with several concerned faces looking down at me. I looked amongst
them for my father. He was closest to me, sitting at my shoulder, holding my hand.
“Father… what happened? Why am I…?” then I remembered the pain, the dust and the
oxen and I touched my cheek where the bullwhip struck.
“Shhh my son, lay back and rest.” Then I saw the scar on my father’s cheek.
“But… you always said…” I touched his cheek gently, tracing my finger along the length
of the scar. It started a rat’s tail breath beneath his right eye and ran all the way to his jaw
“It was a bullwhip, all right, but it was not your uncle Aaron. See, my father gave me this
scar and he gave me many more!” He tore at his shirt until the buttons gave way and he
pulled it free from his body. His back was covered in scars. Scars he hid from me and the
other children for all these years. I sat upright and allowed him to support me against his
“Dad, what was that, how did you…”
“Shhh…No time to explain now my son, you see now how important it is to close that
grave. If he comes here tonight… who knows…?”
“It was a long time ago.” Uncle Aaron stepped forward. “Our father loved the land.
Sometimes, I think he loved that barren shit hole more than he loved our mother.” He sat
down wearily on a chair next to the table. He rested his one arm on the scarred top and
stretched out the opposite leg while leaning back into the rickety old wooden thing. He
sighed. “He loved it so much, he could not leave it. Even when our mother pleaded with
him, begged him to take us away from there, warned him.”
“Warned him of what?” I heard myself ask. Uncle Aaron stared at nothing in front of
him. His breath was fast and loud.
“Warned him of the danger, warned him that he should leave, that we were not wanted
there in the valley.” He paused. “But no! He knew best! He was the man in the house, the
husband, the father, the provider and he knew best!” Uncle Aaron fidgeted in his shirt
pocket and pulled out a worn old pipe. He lit it with care and pulled big billows of smoke
from it. “He wouldn’t listen to her and she was the one that knew. She was from this
world, she knew…”
“Knew what, Uncle Aaron?”
“She knew the Spirits that rule over this land. She knew they were upset about the
Whiteman stealing the land from their children. She knew their wrath and she knew no
Whiteman would ever get anything to grow in the arid environment she called home.” He
sucked on his pipe again. “She told him of Kalunga, the father of her people, the Himba.
She warned him about what the others of her tribe were whispering; that Kalunga and the
other great spirits will wipe the Whiteman from their brow and cast them and all those
who associated with them into the pits of Hell!” His breath raced and his voice rose to a
crescendo. “But our father knew best. So one day he called on Kalunga and he made a
pact with him. He promised to serve him until the end of time if the Himba gods made
the valley fertile for him so that he could provide for his family. Our mother was there
when the Great Spirit appeared; he forced her to help him make contact with Kalunga.
The Great Spirit was irate that a Whiteman would be so impudent to come to him to
bargain, but somehow he admired our father’s courage. So he made the pact, but he
demanded more than just the servitude of our father. He demanded us all!” Uncle Aaron
paused. The rest of his audience was struck to silence. “Furthermore,” he continued, “he
commanded that in order for anything to grow in the fields, the earth had to be drenched
with blood. The blood of a Hartmann. Thus father plowed the lands with his two-ox plow
and between the oxen he strapped one of his sons. One of us! Once a year the ox whip
shredded our skins and our blood drenched the earth and made it fertile and fruit-bearing.
Everyday he would hitch in another son until we each had our turn and the fields were all
done. On the night of the last day, the mists would roll in from the Atlantic and wet the
ground. So it would be every night of the growing season until the crops stood fat in the
fields. Our blood turned to emeralds, dropped in the arid, red desert. Mother would nurse
us back to health and every year for twelve years she bore the plow another son.” Smoke
rose into the air above his head. Father coughed slightly and shifted his weight to the
other leg. Everyone’s eyes darted his way for a split second before Uncle Aaron
continued. “In 1935, Hannah died.” He spat on the floor. “He said she fell of the plow
and he couldn’t save her! The earth was red with her blood and he cried. He cried alright,
because he knew what he had done!” Uncle Aaron wiped tears from his eyes. “Through
the years, two died in the harness; Malachai and Ezra. Another ran away into the desert.
We never saw Samuel again. The rest of us fled from Hartmanns Valley after he died. We
left Mother in an old age home in Windhoek to fend off the demons of her past, alone;
and the rest of the story is your life, that you know.” He sighed as if a huge weight rolled
off his shoulders. “He made a pact with a devil and damned us all to hell! Who did he
think he was to do such a thing?”
The room was silent. You could hear a pin drop. Then, for the first time, Hannah spoke.
“Daddy sent me.” She said simply. A murmur rustled through the room. The little room
shook as Mara feinted and fell to the floor, her feeble husband unable to support her bulk.
“He asked me to come. He can’t face you; any of you. He is ashamed of what he did.”
The little girl paused and moved to sit on a chair opposite Uncle Aaron. “But he wants
you to know that he did what he had to do to save his family from starvation and certain
death. He had no other option but to take on Kalunga’s terms. The wrath of the Spirits
was upon the Hartmanns. Remember one year he stopped? He could go on anymore!
Remember? It was 1935. My death was a warning of what was to come if he did not
continue to heed their will. Daddy did not sacrifice me, he loved me. The Spirits took me
because they knew how much he loved me!” My uncles and aunts were all talking
simultaneously. I could not make out all they were saying but all of them were very upset
and some of the women and Uncle Aaron cried. He hugged Hannah for a long time until
she pushed him away gently and raised her hand to silence the others. “The others who
died after you left the valley; they were all the work of the Spirits of Kaokoland; and they
are not done. Your wives, your children, our father and now our mother. None of us will
rest until the Hartmanns return to their home.” Her message was simple and clear;
delivered with the innocence of the child that she was. Then she stood and hugged each
of her brothers, kissing each of them on the cheek. “Now I am tired. I want to go back to
Mommy and Daddy.” She walked through the silence to the door, opened it, turned,
smiled and waved and disappeared into the hallway. A few minutes later, my father and
his brothers got up and left the room. We did not see them again until they returned the
next morning, tired and haggard, to pack our things and to take us home.
The Kaokoland sun sat high, almost at noon and it baked down ferociously on anything
that dared to tread in its path. Jeb looked up into the relentless skies and wiped the sweat
from his rugged brow with a grimy handkerchief. He spat onto the dry red desert soil and
placed his hat back onto his head. Then he turned to grab the handles of the plough once
more and cracked the long bullwhip over the backs of the oxen. The cry of his beloved
son rose above the expanse of the Hartmann’s Valley and reverberated off the mighty
cliffs of the Otjihipa Mountains just like his did so long ago.


02 May 2019


Short Stories