The Lemon Orchard
by Alex La Guma
The men came down between two long, regular rows of trees. The winter had not passed completely and there was a chill in the air; and the moon was hidden behind long, high parallels of cloud which hung like suspended streamers of dirty cotton-wool in the sky. All of the men but one wore thick clothes against the coolness of the night. The night and earth was cold and damp, and the shoes of the men sank into the soil and left exact, ridged foot prints, but they could not be seen in the dark.
One of the men walked ahead holding a small cycle lantern that worked from a battery, leading the way down the avenue of trees while the others came behind in the dark. The night close around was quiet now that the crickets had stopped their small noises, but far out others that did not feel the presence of the men continued the monotonous creek-creek-creek. Somewhere, even further, a dog started barking in short high yaps, and then stopped abruptly. The men were walking through an orchard of lemons and the sharp, bitter-sweet citrus smell hung gently on the night air.
“Do not go so fast,” the man who brought up the rear of the party called to the man with the lantern. “It’s as dark as a kaffir’s soul here at the back.”
He called softly, as if the darkness demanded silence. He was a big man and wore khaki trousers and laced-up riding boots, and an old shooting jacket with leather patches on the right breast and the elbows.
The shotgun was loaded. In the dark this man’s face was invisible except for a blur of shadowed hollows and lighter crags. Although he walked in the rear he was the leader of the party. The lantern-bearer slowed down for the rest to catch up with him.
“It’s cold, too, Oom,” another man said.
“Cold?” the man with the shotgun asked, speaking with sarcasm. “Are you colder than this verdomte hotnot, here?” And he gestured in the dark with the muzzle of the gun at the man who stumbled along in their midst and who was the only one not warmly dressed.
This man wore trousers and a raincoat which they had allowed him to pull on over his pyjamas when they had taken him from his lodgings, and he shivered now with chill, clenching his teeth to prevent them from chattering. He had not been given time to tie his shoes and the metal-covered ends of the laces clicked as he moved.
“Are you cold, hotnot?” the man with the light jeered.
The colored man did not reply. He was afraid, but his fear was mixed with a stubbornness which forbade him to answer them.
“He is not cold,” the fifth man in the party said. “He is shivering with fear. Is it not so, hotnot?”
The colored man said nothing, but stared ahead of himself into the half-light made by the small lantern. He could see the silhouette of the man who carried the light, but he did not want to look at the two who flanked him, the one who had complained of the cold, and the one who had spoken of his fear. They each carried a sjambok and every now and then one of them slapped a corduroyed leg with his.
“He is dumb, also,” the one who had spoken last chuckled.
“No, Andries. Wait a minute,” the leader who carried the shotgun said, and they all stopped between the row of trees. The man with the lantern turned and put the light on the rest of the party.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Wag’n oomblikkie. Wait a moment,” the leader said, speaking with forced casualness. “He is not dumb. He is a slim hotnot; one of those educated bushmen. Listen, hotnot,” he addressed the colored man, speaking angrily now. “When a baas speaks to you, you answer him. Do you hear?” The colored man’s wrists were tied behind him with a riem and the leader brought the muzzle of the shotgun down, pressing it hard into the small of the man’s back above where the wrists met. “Do you hear, hotnot? Answer me or I will shoot a hole through your spine.”
The bound man felt the hard round metal of the gun muzzle through the loose raincoat and clenched his teeth. He was cold and tried to prevent himself from shivering in case it should be mistaken for cowardice. He heard the small metallic noise as the man with the gun thumbed back the hammer of the shotgun. In spite of the cold little drops of sweat began to form on his upper lip under the overnight stubble.
“For God’s sake, don’t shoot him,” the man with the light said, laughing a little nervously. “We don’t want to be involved in any murder.”
“What are you saying, man?” the leader asked. Now with the beam of the battery-lamp on his face the shadows in it were washed away to reveal the mass of tiny wrinkled and deep creases which covered the red-clay complexion of his face like the myriad lines which indicate rivers, streams, roads and railways on a map. They wound around the ridges of his chin and climbed the sharp range of his nose and the peaks of his chin and cheekbones, and his eyes were hard and blue like two frozen lakes.
“This is mos a slim hotnot,” he said again. “A teacher in a school for which we pay. He lives off our sweat, and he had the audacity to be cheeky and uncivilized towards a minister of our church and no hotnot will be cheeky to a white man while I live.”
“Ja, man,” the lantern-bearer agreed. “But we are going to deal with him. There is no necessity to shoot him. We don’t want that kind of trouble.”
“I will shoot whatever hotnot or kaffir I desire, and see me get into trouble over it. I demand respect from these donders. Let them answer when they’re spoken to.”
He jabbed the muzzle suddenly into the colored man’s back so that he stumbled struggling to keep his balance. “Do you hear, jong? Did I not speak to you?” The man who had jeered about the prisoner’s fear stepped up then, and hit him in the face, striking him on a cheekbone with the clenched fist which still held the sjambok. He was angry over the delay and wanted the man to submit so that they could proceed. “Listen you hotnot bastard,” he said loudly. “Why don’t you answer?”
The man stumbled, caught himself and stood in the rambling shadow of one of the lemon trees. The lantern-light swung on him and he looked away from the center of the beam. He was afraid the leader would shoot him in anger and he had no wish to die. He straightened up and looked away from them.
“Well?” demanded the man who had struck him.
“Yes, baas,” the bound man said, speaking with a mixture of dignity and contempt which was missed by those who surrounded him.
“Yes there,” the man with the light said. “You could save yourself trouble. Next time you will remember. Now let us get on.” The lantern swung forward again and he walked ahead. The leader shoved their prisoner on with the muzzle of the shotgun, and he stumbled after the bobbing lantern with the other men on each side of him.
“The amazing thing about it is that this bliksem should have taken the principal, and the meester of the church before the magistrate and demand payment for the hiding they gave him for being cheeky to them,” the leader said to all in general. “This verdomte hotnot. I have never heard of such a thing in all my born days.”
“Well, we will give him a better hiding,” the man, Andries said. “This time we will teach him a lesson, Oom. He won’t demand damages from anybody when we’re done with him.”
“And afterwards he won’t be seen around here again. He will pack his things and go and live in the city where they’re not so particular about the dignity of the volk. Do you hear, hotnot?” This time they were not concerned about receiving a reply but the leader went on, saying, “We don’t want any educated hottentots in our town.”
“Neither black Englishmen,” added one of the others.
The dog started barking again at the farm house which was invisible on the dark hillside at the other end of the little valley. “It’s that Jagter,” the man with the lantern said. “I wonder what bothers him. He is a good watchdog. I offered Meneer Marais five pounds for that dog, but he won’t sell. I would like to have a dog like that. I would take great care of such a dog.”
The blackness of the night crouched over the orchard and the leaves rustled with a harsh whispering that was inconsistent with the pleasant scent of the lemons. The chill in the air had increased, and far-off the creek-creek-creek of the crickets blended into solid strips of high-pitched sound. Then the moon came from behind the banks of cloud and its white light touched the leaves with wet silver, and the perfume of lemons seemed to grow stronger, as if the juice was being crushed from them.
They walked a little way further in the moonlight and the man with the lantern said, “This is as good a place as any, Oom.”
They had come into a wide gap in the orchard, a small amphitheater surrounded by fragrant growth, and they all stopped within it. The moonlight clung for a while to the leaves and the angled branches, so that along their tips and edges the moisture gleamed with the quivering shine of scattered quicksilver.