Fiction Friday | 'The Inn at Helsvlakte' by Patricia Schonstein
In the Karoo-like landscape of a mythical country beset with civil war, tarot cards are brandished and bones swiftly turn to dust. Against the backdrop of this arid place, Kitty Cloete, the innkeeper’s wife, survives on her inner resources.
Strong and self-willed, Kitty is a skilled equestrienne, wheelwright, blacksmith and talented harpist, none of which could shield her from an arranged marriage after an ill-fated romance.
And now, devastation at Helsvlakte.
After state soldiers are ambushed by separatist guerrillas, a critically injured captain arrives at the inn. For the haunted man, whose face has been disfigured in combat, the soulful music of Kitty’s harp becomes the elixir that brings him back to life.
But drama awaits offstage. A young man who witnessed the slaying of his family and the torching of their farm hears of the captain’s residence at the inn. He holds the captain responsible for the tragedy that befell his loved ones and sets out to find him.
The Inn at Helsvlakte is present-day troubadour Patricia Schonstein’s bewitching tale of love and betrayal, family, human foibles and the theatre of war.
Taking her hand, he led her into the louche Dockland with its fisherfolk and tradesmen. There, they went past a tavern, loud and cheery, and mingled among maids enjoying a few hours out with their beaux. They watched youths leaning against lampposts, smoking, saw the night-watch patrolling, and walked past a gin bar where women sat drinking while their pimps waited in the shadows. They joined a queue of couples buying from a sherbet seller – Kitty had never before experienced the tingling sensation of the sweet powder.
They stopped at the stalls of food vendors. The Captain bought bowls of steaming soup and a warm loaf baked with a pear and strong cheese inside, which they ate at a long table, seated with others.
‘You’ve just missed the circus,’ he told her. ‘What an extravagant, dazzling thing! I’m sure you won’t have seen anything like it in your life. Fortunately, they have two seasons each year. We’ll go next time. I know the former cavalrymen who perform there. They put on a convincing show, manoeuvring their horses in the tightest formations.’
‘Is it a travelling circus? Once, when I was a child, a troupe of clowns and illusionists came our way.’
‘No, this is a permanent one. With an amphitheatre of its own and even an orchestra.’
‘May we go anyway? Would they allow us?’
‘I’m sure that would be possible. Though if you see all the mechanisms and props, it might spoil the excitement of an actual performance. Wait, rather.’
Later, a girl selling posies of violets let the Captain choose the prettiest for Kitty. A fortune teller, wearing a sequined bolero and black half-face mask, held up a pack of tarot cards and called out, ‘Futures! Futures told! What will be, will be! Come hear it all!’
As the couple came past her, she shouted, ‘Sir! Captain! Oh, Captain! Let me read the cards for you and your pretty maiden! Paths cross. Lives cross, and we are blind to them! Let me show you the intersections!’
She drew a card from the pack – The Tower – with its portent for destructive change, and was about to hand it to them, to entice them to pay for a reading, but instead she watched the couple go on their way, leaving them to draw open the curtains of their dark drama without foreknowledge. A lively breeze circled Kitty and the Captain, and the lighthouse blazed in the night. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to make their way to the Captain’s rooms.
Captain Malan lived in comfort in his own quarters, away from the officers’ accommodation of the Castle. He welcomed Kitty in and lit the lamps, which gave a burnished touch to the ivorywash of the walls.
A map lay on a desk, together with inks and quills. Books filled a cabinet. An armoire contained both uniforms and civilian clothes. On the walls hung several paintings, including a scene from the Peloponnesian War and another of the Battle of Actium.
Malan took Kitty’s cape from her shoulders and hung it with his jacket. He undid his sword belt and was about to put it down when, taking it from him, she asked, ‘May I?’ With his consent, she drew the sword from its scabbard, feeling its weight and admiring the engraving.
Kitty removed her gloves and slipped off her shoes and stockings. They sat at a cherry wood table. He poured two glasses of port, then unwrapped the pastries and marzipan he’d bought.
The Captain’s face bore the marks of his history. The fine etchings around his eyes told of shooting to kill, of bullets barely missing him, of a world that belonged to war. She ran a hand down these tellings, but could not read them. Kitty herself had never crossed the threshold into the arena of war, even though war was tearing the country apart. She could not read that he had rehearsed his own death on numerous occasions, and that this had given him an acute understanding of the precariousness of life. She read only his male beauty and his desire for her.
Kitty took a crumb from his mouth and placed it on her tongue. She rested a bare foot on his lap and he caressed it. They looked at each other with smiling eyes, then, with a rising excitement, undressed.
The Captain’s musculature affirmed the vigour of both swordsman and cavalryman. He undid the buttons and sash of her dress and took it down from her shoulders. She stepped out of it, and he placed it with due care on an ottoman while she removed her undergarments.
They lay on the purple, tapestried cover of his bed. He stroked her arms and hands which bore numerous scars left by her work with fire and molten metal, and he understood why she had no fear of walking alone. He kissed her breasts and she allowed his fingers to find their way to deeper intimacy.
Kitty and Leander Malan made love to the distant sound of fishermen preparing to go out with their nets for the night. Far away, under the waves, shoals of fish moved in unison with no concept of their fate. A touch of curiosity and envy ran through Malan as he realised there had been a lover before him. Kitty’s thoughts, in turn, alighted on that other lover and she wondered whether he intuited that she was in someone else’s embrace.
Afterwards they lay – she with her head on his breast, he fingering a lock of her hair – and she told him about the land she dwelt upon. ‘It seethes with colour. Brown and ochre and red. After rain, however little falls, all the greens burst forth. Spring has more shades than are named. And then there is white, when frost settles, like a brushing of powdered lime. On moonless nights, the black is deep, like ink.’
She described the wind. ‘It is like a beast. A capricious creature with its own will. Sometimes roaring. Sometimes silent, steady. But when it does not blow – when days and days of stillness go by – you could go mad, longing for it.’
The Captain was entranced by her descriptions, but when she asked about his career and ambitions, he dismissed her, saying, ‘You want me to describe my regimented soldier’s life when I’m falling in love with you? When I’m hovering at a chasm of no return? Unask your questions, my lady. Let us instead inhabit your world, which sounds as beautiful as any gallery of art.’
- Extract provided by Penguin Random House