Excerpted from Chapter One
On Saturday 17 November 1832, after following the Elephant Trail that runs between the Village of Franschhoek, past the Farm Zandvliet to the small Town of Stellenbosch near Cape Town, the young Slave Woman Philida arrives at the Drostdy with its tall white Pillars, where she is directed to the Office of the Slave Protector, Mijnheer Lindenberg, to lodge a Complaint against her Owner Cornelis Brink and his Son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink.
Here come shit. Just one look, and I can see it coming. Here I walk all this way and God know that is bad enough, what with the child in the abbadoek on my back, and now there's no turning back, it's just straight on to hell and gone. This is the man I got to talk to if I want to lay a charge, they tell me, this Grootbaas who is so tall and white and thin and bony, with deep furrows in his forehead, like a badly ploughed wheat field, and a nose like a sweet potato that has grown past itself.
It's a long story. First he want to find out everything about me, and it's one question after another. Who am I? Where do I come from? What is the name of my Baas? What is the name of the farm? For how long I been working there? Did I get a pass for coming here? When did I leave and how long did I walk? Where did I sleep last night? What do I think is going to happen to me when I get home again? And every time I say something, he first write it down in his big book with those knobbly hands and his long white fingers. These people got a thing about writing everything down. Just look at the back pages of the black Bible that belong to Oubaas Cornelis Brink, that's Francois Gerhard Jacob's father.
While the Grootbaas is writing I keep watching him closely. There's something second-hand about the man, like a piece of knitting gone wrong that had to be done over, but badly, not very smoothly. I can say that because I know about knitting. On his nose sit a pair of thick glasses like a bat with open wings, but he look at me over them, not through them. His long hands keep busy all the time. Writing, and dipping the long feather in the ink, and sprinkling fine sand on the thick paper, and shifting his papers this way and that on top of the table that is really too low for him because he is so tall. He is sitting, I keep standing, that is how it's got to be.
In the beginning I feel scared, my throat is tight. But after the second or third question I start feeling better. All I can think of is: If it was me that was knitting you, you'd look a bit better, but now whoever it was that knitted you, did not cast you off right. Still, I don't say anything. In this place it's only him and me and I don't want to get on his wrong side. I got to tell him everything, and that is exactly what I mean to do today, without keeping anything back.
He ask me: When did Francois Brink first... I mean, when was it that the two of you began to ... you know what I'm talking about?
Eight years ago.
You sure about that? How can you be so sure?
Ja, it is eight years, I tell you, my Grootbaas. I remember it very clearly because that was the winter when Oubaas Cornelis take the lot of us in to the Caab to see the man they hanged, that slave Abraham, on the Castle gallows. And it was after we come home from there, to the farm Zandvliet, that it begin between Frans and me.
How did it begin? What happened?
It was a bad day for me, Grootbaas. Everything that happen in the Caab, in front of the Castle. The man they hang. Two times, because the first time the rope break, and I remember how the man keep dancing at the end of the rope round his neck, and how his thing get all big and stiff and start to spit.
What do you mean, his thing?
His man-thing, Grootbaas, what else? I hear the people talking about how it sometimes happen when a man is hanged, but it is the first time I see it for myself, and I never want to see it again.
And you said that when you came back on the farm ... ?
Yes, that was when. We first come past the old sow in the sty, the old fat-arse pig they call Hamboud. The Oubaas say many times before that he want to slaughter her because she is so blarry useless, but the Ounooi keep on saying she must stay here so her big arse can grow even bigger and fatter. And afterwards, when we get home, we come past the four horses in the stable, and the two good-for-nothing donkeys, and then the stupid trassie hen that Ounooi Janna call Zelda after her aunt that skinder so much, the hen that don't know if she is a cock or a hen and that can never manage to lay an egg herself but always go cackling like a mad thing whenever some other hen on the farm lay one. And then in the late afternoon when we are all back on the farm where we belong I first go to Ouma Nella, her full name is Petronella, but to me she is always just Ouma Nella.
From Philida by André Brink. Copyright 2013 by André Brink. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Books.