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The Slipway Grey

Sit by me, my bokkie, my darling girl. Closer, yes, there.

I am an old man now, and this is a thing that happened to me when I was very young. This is not like the story of your uncle Mika, and how he tricked me in the Breede River and I almost drowned. It is also not like the story of my good friend Jurie Gouws whom you called Goose when he was alive, which was a good name for him. He used to hitchhike all across Rhodesia until he blew off his right thumb at that accident at the Selebi mine, which I will say something about. Afterward the trucks would stop anyway, even when he wasn’t trying to hitch a ride, because of the ghost thumb, he used to say, which still ached with arthritis when it rained.

These are what your father would call fables or fancies or tall tales, and perhaps he is right that they have grown an inch or two in the telling, but the story I will tell you is a different sort of story, my bokkie, because it is my story and it is a true story. It has not grown in the telling because I have never told anyone about what happened except for your Ouma, God rest her soul, to whom I told all the secrets of my heart and let her judge them as she would. Still, even she did not know what it meant, and neither of us could ever come to much agreement on this.

I am getting older, and I can feel the ache Jurie complained of in his thumb. It lives in every part of me, but my lungs most of all, which the doctor tells me are all moth-eaten by the mining work, even though that was many years passed. Perhaps you will say that moths are not made for lungs. They are made for closets and for fine things such as the silk your Ouma wore on our wedding day—white silk, the finest Tsakani government silk, so fine it felt like water in my hands, but then after she died and I went to see to her things, there it was, so thick with moths in the crawlspace where she had hid it, so thick it was as if she had made the dress of these little white-winged creatures with their dark nesting eyes, and maybe she had, maybe there had been nothing but moths on her as she walked down the aisle to marry me. But the way that dress looked when the moths had scattered—all coming to pieces in my hands, this beautiful thing, this beautiful thing I had loved so much when I had seen it that day, the doctors say that is what my lungs are like now, from the mine dust.

When a man gets older a man starts to think about all the things in the world—like you, my bokkie, the things that he loves and the things that he will leave behind—but then he also thinks about the place that he might be going to and the people he might see there, like Jurie and the others and especially like your Ouma who has had to wait far too long for me to catch up with her.

The story goes like this, and I know you have not heard it before, but even so, if you have heard parts before or heard something like it then keep still, my bokkie, keep still and listen, for a thing that starts the same does not always end the same.

I first met Jurie at Howard College when I was studying. He was an Afrikaner like I was and he was also studying engineering. From that first look, I judged Jurie to be something of a NAAFI, which is to say, No Ambition and Fuck-All Interest, if you don’t mind me saying so and please don’t repeat it to your father, but that is the kind of man he was. Skinny as a bushwillow, with a mess of bright red hair. He had the look of a traveling man, and that is an untrustworthy sort of look. As it happened, though, I spent much of my time studying and Jurie spent little enough time at the same endeavor, still when our grades were posted he consistently beat me. I knew he was not a more diligent student than I, and I guessed he was not a smarter one. I confess this rankled somewhat, particularly because I was only there because your Uncle Mika had paid my way to University instead of going himself, and even then he had just been drafted into the National Service, though it was as a cook, thank God, and not a proper service man because he had flat feet. So it was that near the end of term, after I had had a somewhat ill-informed dalliance with a particular lady who was not your Ouma, because this was before your Ouma and before I found out what love was, that my grades started to slip. You see, my bokkie, the thing about women is that they have a power about them that is not unlike that story Jurie told you about his thumb. Women are like that, they’ve got the power to stop you in your tracks. You will be the same, my bokkie, just you wait.

But I won’t go further into that matter here, for the sake of your Ouma who, if she was listening, wouldn’t like to hear it much repeated. The important thing is that I found myself in a somewhat precarious position in terms of my schooling. I had watched Jurie, who, as I say, seemed no smarter than I was, rise higher and higher in the postings while my own place suffered. As the end of term stepped closer and closer, I found myself in what you might call desperate straits, so it was then I approached Jurie and inquired in what might have been rather ruder terms than I shall repeat as to the nature of his successes. Jurie did not answer in the manner I expected. He was, you see, used to that sort of line of questioning, and had developed a limp and the occasional black eye from answering badly. That smile of his, well, I’ll tell you that it didn’t hang quite so straight on his face back then. Remember, I wasn’t an old man and so all this skin you see hanging off my bones and my lungs raggle-taggled, well, it wasn’t much like that. It had been remarked more than once that I could have been a champion boxer if I had applied my mind to that instead of engineering. I confess I might have asked Jurie in such a way that he considered it wisest to answer quickly. So he tells it, anyway.

He told me that he had learned a special trick to train his mind. Now I know, my bokkie, that this might sound something like those other tales I started off with, but I swear to you that isn’t the way of it. What Jurie could do I had seen with my own eyes, and this is it: he would sit in a certain chair suited to relaxation, and then he would take a certain word, which I shall not tell, and he would repeat it over and over and over again. He described the sensation to me as standing at the top of a stairwell partially submerged in water, and as he would say the word, he would take a step farther and farther downward until such time as he had drifted into the water, until it reached his knees and then his belly and then his shoulders and then his chin.

When he was deep into the water, so deep he was floating and he could feel nothing but the warmth of the water and all weight had left him, then he would imagine three boxes adrift in the water. As he continued to say the word, he would swim one stroke closer until at last he had reached the boxes. Then he would open each box and he would place inside each box some part of the day’s lessons. Once the whole process was complete, he would begin to stir again, and his eyelids would flutter wild and delicate, then the rest of him would stretch and yawn, but the knowledge would be lodged firmly in his memory.

I thought this sounded a fine thing. When I saw it at work it seemed no harm so I asked him to show me how it was done.

Jurie was reluctant. He said that it took time to master the skill properly, but after some time and some insistence eventually he relented. It is difficult to tell you exactly what the experience of that meditation was like, as I have never felt its likeness at all except for, perhaps, the look in your Ouma’s eyes after we had come to the decision together about what should happen, which was a thing both frightening but somehow also calming in the end.

That is what the experience was like.

I stepped into the water, lower and lower, but he had not told me how lifelike it would be. For Jurie’s eyes had a furious calm to them, as if he was stepping into a bath, but for me the water was strange and dark. Instinctively, I did not want to go into it.

To understand this properly, I must tell you something about your Uncle Mika and the Breede River. I know, my bokkie, that he has told you this story before, but as I said earlier, a thing that starts the same does not always end the same.

There was a time when we were much younger and we lived along the Breede River. As boys, he and I would go diving in the waters because unlike most of the waters in those parts it was free of crocodiles and mosquitoes and hippopotamuses. Because we were boys, and because I was bigger than Uncle Mika even though he was older, he would often make challenges to me. He would say, “I expect you cannot swim as fast to the other side of the river as I can,” or, “I expect you cannot take that man’s prized rod and tackle,” and so forth. That day, he said to me that he reckoned he could stay under the water longer, and I, of course, reckoned otherwise, and so it was set that we would swim out a ways and then we would both go under together. Your Uncle Mika was a damn sight smarter than me in those days, and he took with him a straw he had fashioned for the purpose of breathing under water. The Breede, you see, was so murky in that part that though I could see him, I couldn’t see anything like the straw he had fashioned.

So down we went, the two of us boys, and out came your Uncle Mika’s straw, and he blew and he blew until it was cleared of water and he could breathe as if he were upon dry land. Down I went, and I sank right to the bottom because I was heavier than he was, and I kept my cheeks puffed out and I stared at your Uncle Mika, so close to the surface and I confess I might have laughed to myself, I confess I might have thought him something of a moegoe or a coward as you would say it, so close to the surface where he could just pop his head up when he was tired. Even then I knew it is not good to have the thing you want too close to you, not if you want to resist it. No, I knew I would do better in the depths where I would forget what sunlight looked like and forget the taste of the Sunday morning air.

Of course, as you would have guessed it your Uncle Mika could hold out for far longer than me, what with his straw, and though I sat at the bottom, heavy as a stone, smart as a crocodile and laughing in my head at him, I began to feel a burning in my lungs. A little thing at first, but need is need and the need for the Sunday morning air was not likely to diminish. Your Uncle Mika sucked away at it, but me, down there in the darkness with the weeds, I had to live off only what I had taken down with me. So my lungs got to burning, and my lungs got to burning, and all I got see was your Uncle Mika happy near the surface and looking like he might go on forever.

There is only so much a man can take, my bokkie, and I had long past reached it. So finally when I tried to push to the surface, my lungs feeling like they’d take in the water as happily as the air and my vision all gone strangled and dim, well, wouldn’t you know it but down there in the muck I had managed to hook myself well and good on the trunk of an old yellowwood, it being, as I have said, a sight murky at the bottom.

It wouldn’t have been a difficult thing to get free of. I was a strong boy and a good swimmer, but I was weak from holding in my breathing, and the first thing to set upon me was a panic so strong and so terrible that I flailed like a mad thing.

Your Uncle Mika, he was just about getting tired of playing that old game anyway, and he looks down and he sees me flailing about, and all he can think is the tales the old fishermen used to tell him about the things that lived in the water, the things that none of us quite believed would ever come so far inland. So your Uncle Mika, he hightails it out of there, thinking I’m already dead, thinking that the thing, whatever it is, has already got me. I can’t fault him for it, even if he were my own brother, but still to this day I think that is why he sent me off to University even though I was never quite as clever as he was. He always felt the shame of tricking me with that little straw and then leaving me to drown.

So there I am at the bottom of the Breede River, caught up in a tangle with an old yellowwood and not long for the world, I reckon, and soon sure enough the water on the other side of my lips is looking sweeter and sweeter if only so that it’ll stop that damn fire in my lungs. That’s when I see it: to this day your Uncle Mika doesn’t believe me even though he’s seen the old lady himself, but I swear that I saw something dark moving through the water, and to be sure, it was exactly the same thing that your Uncle Mika had been afraid of—an old Zambezi bull shark, the grand dame of river sharks, I reckon, her body like a torpedo with a slit-open mouth across the front, head wavering back and forth as she slid oh so delicately through the waters.

They say those sharks are killers, man-eaters, they call them, the slipway greys. Sure as Hell if I had thought drowning would be bad, it had nothing on being taken apart bit by bit by those teeth of hers.

But this one, she just glided past me, a solemn thing, beautiful even though I can’t tell you how, until the darkness and the murk closed around her once more.

Who can say if I really saw it? I certainly believed it. It was only a moment later that your Uncle Mika was in the water again, and he was hauling me out by the shoulder, by the hair, by any bit of me he could grab hold of. You see, he’d realized there was no blood, and if there had been a shark, there would’ve been blood. So after a minute up on the banks, gasping like a son of a bitch, he was in the water again and he was after me and I’m sure that I owe him my life for it.

But that shark, that slipway grey . . . I swear to you, my bokkie, there was nothing more frightening in the world, not even the fear of drowning, than seeing that old thing gliding past. My father, he was a religious man and he spoke to us boys about angels and signs and such, and I swear to you, that day the Angel of Death wore a face and that face was the face of the slipway grey.

I have told you all this for a reason, though, and that is to say that deep water has always had such an effect on me. It is enough to shiver my blood and tighten my balls, if you don’t mind me saying. I still cannot shake the feeling that deep water, it was not made for the likes of you and I. It was made for the angels and the demons of this world.

So when Jurie set me to walking down those steps into the cold blackness of those waters, saying that word over and over again, a kind of creeping terror stole over me. All I could imagine was the feel of something against my legs as I crawled through darkness towards the three boxes he told me about, but I did as he told me, and I opened them one by one, and into them I placed the day’s lessons. When I woke, cold-soaked and sweating, there it was in my head, and to this day I still know the things I learned. I only have to travel in my mind to the boxes.

As you know, Jurie and I became close friends, and I suspect I owe much of my career to him and his tricks. Indeed, it was the very next semester that I met your Ouma, God rest her soul, and if I thought the first woman had a kind of pull about her, well, there has never been another woman like your Ouma.

The next part of the story happened some time later once Jurie and I had both taken jobs at the Selebi mine in Botswana. I know you have not been to the mines and so you do not know what it was like there. The job of an engineer is to make a place unfit for man livable, and that is what I did. I was the winding engineer, it was my job to inspect the shafts and make sure there were no obstructions for the man winder, that little elevator the workers used to ride, ninety, a hundred-fifty, up to three-hundred-sixty meters down to the bottom where they loaded the copper and tin into bins.

On this particular day, Jurie and I were riding on the top of the cage of the man winder in order to perform an inspection upon its gears. This was the part that I disliked most about the job, that great fall into the black, just watching that cable unwind slowly as the winding engine driver lowered us down. Jurie, of course, was Jurie and it never bothered him in the slightest, he was the sort of man who could raise a smile on the Devil’s lips if he had to. In those days we could not get a radio signal in the mines so we used a system of bells to communicate with the surface: one chime to stop, two chimes to raise slowly, and three chimes to lower. So this time it was three chimes to lower, and down we went, one, two, just like that and the winding engine driver sent the cage a hundred meters, two hundred meters into darkness.

It was at about the two hundred-fifty meter mark where Jurie was fooling around as he did sometimes, knowing that I was a nervous man about such things. Sometimes he would joke about the other men, and sometimes he would sing that old mining song. “Shosholoza,” he would sing, “shosholoza, you are running away on these mountains. Eh, boss? Sing it with me.” And the sound would echo back up through the mines like Jurie was the tongue kicking around at the bottom of some enormous throat. “Shosholoza, shosholoza,” he was singing like a mad man, and me chiming three times for the winding engine driver to take us the rest of the way down. And Jurie’s just been singing along—“shosholoza, shosholoza,” he’s singing like a drunk, “go forward, go forward,” he’s singing—and suddenly he’s hollering up a storm. Underneath us the cage starts to shudder and shake—snick, snick, snick—making a noise. Oh, my bokkie, I don’t have to tell you that it is every mine worker ’s nightmare. That sound. The feeling of the world shifting under your feet and a straight plunge into darkness waiting for you. It sends shivers through me even now, just remembering.

But there it was, the man winder tilting sideways until there’s a shower of sparks as it scrapes along the side of the shaft, but not budging too much because now it’s jammed solid in the shaft. Then I can see something flashing like a snake in the bright cone of my mining light, something winding through the air, fast now, hooking back and forth. I’m looking around and then I see what it is, one of the stabilizing guy wires snapped free.

It’s snapping mad like a hyena put off her dinner for too long, and Jurie’s still shrieking, and I can see he’s over by the cage’s metal guide, and now he’s waving his hand around and the air has gone heavy and sour with the smell of blood.

You’ve seen Jurie smile that goose smile of his, yes, I know it, but you’ve never seen the way a man smiles, you’ve never seen the way a man’s lips might become something else, might change the very shape of his face when he’s staring at the stump of his thumb down there in the mine’s darkness, two hundred meters from a sunlight you don’t know you’ll ever see again.

That snapped guy wire, you see, that wasn’t enough to drop us solid—thank God for that—but it was enough to jam us down there. Jurie with just that stub of his thumb bleeding out on the cage. Me with nothing but that bell to tell them what had happened. “Eh, boss,” says Jurie, and I don’t even know if he can tell what he’s saying, but he’s whispering, “go forward, go forward” still as if the song’s just kept running through his head, teeth flashing white and glowing in that thin beam of mining light.

I chime the bell once, and the cage, it stops grinding away. At least it’s steady for a moment.

I look at Jurie, and Jurie looks at me. He’s licking his lips now, I don’t know if he can feel the pain, but he’s licking his lips just like he’s going to settle down to a chicken dinner, like he’s so hungry and that scares me all the worse.

“We’ll get you, Goose,” I say to him, “they’ll be coming down here for us, you know that.” I’m tearing off something of my shirt, and you can hear that noise, that long rip echoing back up the throat of the mine. Then I’m wrapping it around him, wrapping it around that hand, and I can feel the blood pooling sticky onto my hand, and I can hear him breathing heavy now in my ear. “Eh, boss,” he’s saying, as he holds his other hand over mine till I can feel them almost tacking together with the blood. “Eh, boss. You gotta climb, you gotta climb now.”

I know he’s right. I know that bell isn’t enough, and if we wait, well, Jurie’s bones wouldn’t be the first to feed the darkness, his blood wouldn’t be the first dripping down into the great dark black. But, dammit, if there isn’t a worse thing I can imagine at that moment than climbing. But there is need, and I know it, and I know that if I do not climb then Jurie will be dead.

There are vertical ladders—five, six meters each—running up the side of the shaft, so before I think about it, before my brain slams on the brakes, there I am, twenty meters up, Jurie’s mine light winking away below me, him slumped over away from the broken guy wire. And then I was climbing. I was climbing and the shaft wall was wet with groundwater leakage, and it was running down the metalwork too, down those ladders I was clinging too. And my hands, my hands were wet with Jurie’s blood, but I pull myself up, I pull myself up until after a while I can hear Jurie singing, “go forward, go forward” in that crazy, pain-mad voice of his, or maybe I’m just dreaming it by then.

Because it is just like being underwater. It is just like that, the darkness close around me, and my muscles burning, burning. But I know that if I slack for a moment now, then I will plummet all that way and the dark will take me too.

So I start saying a word.

I started saying that word that Jurie taught me years before, and with every hoist upward I am saying that word now, I am breathing that word out and I am breathing that word in again and I am getting higher and higher and higher away from the blood and the cage and the pool of light beneath me.

And as I climb higher, it is like I am swimming up from deep water now, swimming from the ocean floor up and up and upto sunlight and the Sunday morning air.

But I know I will not make it. I know my strength is failing me.

I am a hundred meters up now. I am a hundred and twenty meters up. If I fall, I will die.

And there is something in the darkness with me. Something in those dark waters of my mind, something that I sensed was always there with me, has always been with me since I was a child, since the day I was born. And she is sleek, gorgeous and deadly. This thing with me. This thing I know is my own death.

The killer. The man-eater. The slipway grey.

She is coming for me now, drifting along the currents, slick and terminal. Cold and quiet as the lights turning off one by one by one. Her mouth open and tasting. The wide, dark, liquid space of her eyes. The shadow of her, the shape of her. My death come for me at last.

I said, my bokkie, that I have never told this to another person, and that is true. But it was real. It was real to me. I swear it to you and I swore it to your Ouma and, for everything, I know she believed me.

I could feel my hands going slack on the ladder. My back humping out into the open shaft of the mine.

She was beautiful. I wanted her to come for me.

But then. But then, my bokkie, there was something else. Three boxes. I could see them as well as I can see you here, all dressed up fine for Sunday church and maybe a bit impatient no?—with your Oupa’s stories. Three boxes.

So my hands are slipping and in my mind I am opening those three boxes. And do you know what I find? In the first is your Uncle Mika who had taken on the National Service for me. In the second is Jurie, lying in the darkness below me, singing that damn stupid song of his. And in the third is your Ouma who was everything to me. My piece of sunlight. My Sunday morning air. In those three boxes were all the things worth living for.

So I set myself to climbing again and oh, even though it hurt, even though it hurt more than anything, it was still easier than dying. So up I am coming, and I can see that shape of darkness so near me I could touch her. I can see those teeth of hers.

But for the second time she passes me by. For the second time she lets me go, and up I came out of the mine. Up I came into the light, and there was the winding engine driver and all the others, waiting for me.

They got Jurie out, not fast, of course, not fast enough to save his thumb but fast enough that even though he was pale and shaking he was still alive. Still singing that damn song of his. “Go forward, go forward,” he was singing, “you are running away on those mountains, the train from Zimbabwe.”

Now, as I said to you, your Ouma and I, we could never much agree on what it all meant, what it was that I had seen there drifting in the darkness. But let me tell you this one thing, my bokkie, this one thing that I have not told another soul. At the end, after your Ouma and I had come to that decision together and I could see that the lights were going out, one by one, she drew me close to her. Her skin was as pale as old silk, and her touch was as light as a moth’s wing, but she pulled me close to her and she whispered into my ear, “I see it. Oh, love, I see it, and I am scared, and I see it, and she is come for me.”

Now I know you do not want to listen longer to an old man’s ramblings, but as I said, this is a true story. Not a fable. Not a fancy. And I swear to you that it has not grown in the telling. But even now. Even now as I am drawing in breath through these raggle-taggled lungs of mine, these lungs that the doctors tell me will not last much longer, these lungs that feel as if they are breathing in water instead of Sunday air. Even now I know she is coming for me. The grand dame of the river. The slipway grey.

There are three boxes.

Jurie has gone into one, your Ouma has gone into another, and I fear, my bokkie, the last box is mine. But this is how it should be. A man should not live forever.

Because that is what death is. That beast in the darkness where no beast should be. Death is the thing that hooks you and will not let you go. Death is the slow undoing of beautiful things.

You should know this, my bokkie, while you are young. Your father will not teach you this.

But here is another secret. The slipway grey has her own kind of beauty, and when you meet her you will know that. There is more to her than the teeth. This is how it is, my bokkie. I want you to know that. When she comes for me the third time, I shall be ready for her. I shall welcome her as an old friend. And when she comes to you, and pray God let that be many years from now, I know that you will do the same.

Originally published in Chilling Tales Two: In Words, Alas, Drown I and reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2014.

About the Author

Helen Marshall is a critically acclaimed author, editor, and Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University. Her first collection of fiction, Hair Side, Flesh Side, which won the Sydney J Bounds Award in 2013, emerged from her work as a book historian. Rather than taking the long view of history, her second collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, negotiated very personal issues of legacy and tradition, creating myth-infused worlds where “love is as liable to cut as to cradle, childhood is a supernatural minefield, and death is ‘the slow undoing of beautiful things’ ” (Quill&Quire, starred review). It won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. Her first novel, Everything that is Born, will be released by Random House Canada in 2018.