The Elusive Moth - Excerpt
In the afternoon Karolina and Basil drove to a neighbouring town, somewhat larger than Voorspoed, to pick up a parcel for Mr. Quiroga, whose car had broken down. This may be pure coincidence, or it may be preordained, Karolina thought—she had stopped to give a lift to this stranger, and now she was travelling with him along a road she might never have taken if she had been on her own. How extraordinary.
Along the way they came upon the scene of an accident. They saw a stationary car and a pick-up truck on the same side of the road, a few hundred metres apart. Basil indicated that she should pull over. He jumped out and Karolina followed close behind. (If she had been on her own she would have driven by, she would have gone for help.)
The driver of the car lay sprawled to one side, flung clear of his vehicle and halfway down the embankment. The driver of the pick-up truck was slumped forward in his seat. Blood had oozed from his ears and his nose and had dried in thin streaks across his face. His head resembled an urn that had been shattered and patched together again, leaving fine, visible cracks. His eyes were swollen shut, as if he had been crying over something for a long time. He sat motionless, solitary, attentive.
Karolina took in all of this in an instant, in the few moments it took to get to the pick-up truck and to run back to the man on the ground. He was lying on his stomach. The earth beneath him was soaked. Basil turned him over carefully. He wore short trousers; a jet of blood spurted freely, like a fountain, from a deep gash in his leg. Basil remarked on the colour of the blood. Bright red, because it was pumping away so fast, he said. The man appeared to be unconscious, but his eyes were half open; he was whimpering. Basil took off his shirt, tore it into strips, tied them tightly round the wound. He took two small phials from a small leather pouch he was carrying. He got Karolina to hold the man’s head, tilting the neck back slightly. Carefully he shook a few tiny tablets into the mouth, under the tongue.
“This will stop the heavy bleeding and prevent shock,” said Basil.
He examined the man briefly. (A young man.) Found no serious injury. Feel here, he said to Karolina, one hand is burning hot, the other icy cold. The man’s body was quite rigid, his arms and legs jerked at regular intervals. They should move him to the car very carefully, said Basil, showing her where to take hold of him. It was very hot, they sweated profusely, sweat ran into Karolina’s eyes. They carried the injured man up the steep embankment, moving forward one step at a time; getting him onto the back seat required considerable effort.
Karolina took a last look at the attentive corpse in the pick-up truck. She drove fast; Basil kept a constant watch on the injured man, placing more of the tiny pills under his tongue at regular intervals.
“The guy in the pick-up truck died some time ago,” he said, “long before this man was injured.”
“What does that mean?” asked Karolina.
“It means it was a very unusual accident,” said Basil.
On reaching the town, they dropped the injured man off at the hospital first and reported the accident to the police afterwards.
Only then did they get round to picking up Mr. Quiroga’s parcel at a sturdy stone house in Rooibult Street, next door to the Majuba Trading Store. It was almost five o’clock, the streets were crowded, the heat was stifling. Surely that mountain can’t be too far from here, said Basil as he got out of the car – Majuba, where the Boers and the English fought their battle. Karolina waited for him in the car, scanned the horizon unenthusiastically, saw no mountain. Right now she couldn’t care less what the Boers and the English had been up to in these parts. Her mouth was dry. People hung about noisily outside the Majuba Trading Store, waiting for taxis and lifts.
When Basil returned with the parcel, he suggested that they should find a place to have tea. Karolina accepted gratefully.
She bent her head over her tea.
Basil sat quietly facing her.
“I’ve been content up to now,” she said at last. “I was perfectly content until recently. I could keep everything at a distance. But now, all of a sudden I can no longer do so. I feel caught up in everything. And detached from everything too. So detached, and so caught up. A strange feeling.” She spoke more urgently. “I don’t know what I’ve done with my life! I don’t know if I can still love someone!” (She started, why speak of love all of a sudden?) “I can’t open my hand,” she said, opening her hand, her palm facing upward, “I can’t let go.”
She broke off suddenly, resting her elbow on the table, covering her mouth with her hand.
“I think of death all the time,” she said. “Whenever I’m not thinking of the moths.”
Two men entered the café as she spoke, but Karolina was too upset to notice them immediately.
“Do you dream of great masses of water?” asked Basil.
“Yes,” said Karolina.
“Do you dream of insects?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you cross unfamiliar landscapes in your dreams?”
“Yes,” she said.
“What else?” asked Basil.
“Everyone I’ve ever known seems to be turning up in my dreams lately,” said Karolina. “No matter if they’re dead or alive.”
Basil took a small phial from the leather pouch.
“Take this,” he said. “Put it on your tongue.”
Karolina stretched her neck forward, tilted her head back (as she had done with the injured man that morning) and received the tiny, sweetish pills on her tongue like a sacramental wafer.
From the corner of her eye she saw that both men were looking directly at them now.
“Good heavens, Basil!” she whispered when the men resumed their conversation. “It’s the lover! It’s the man we saw at the cemetery the other day!”
The next time they saw him would be on stage, at the performance of The Jealous Husband the following Saturday night.