Authors: Fred Strydom
Copyright © 2015 by Fred Strydom
First published in 2015 by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa (Pty) Ltd.
First Talos Press edition 2016
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Strydom, Fred, author.
Title: The raft : a novel / Fred Strydom.
Description: First Talos Press edition. | New York : Talos Press, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2015050141 | ISBN 9781940456607 (hardback)
Subjects: LCSH: Regression (Civilization)--Fiction. | Memory--Fiction. | Science fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Science Fiction / Adventure. | FICTION / Science Fiction / General.
Classification: LCC PR9369.4.S85 R34 2016 | DDC 823/.92--dc23
LC record available at
Cover illustration by Sylvain Sarrailh
Cover design by Rain Saukas
Printed in the United States of America
For Bronnie …
My compass, my journey and my destination.
A tree in the clouds
Remember Jack Turning—
fell out of my dream.
It took me a while to figure out where I was, where I had fallen asleep. It was the familiar scratch of sand beneath my clothing that first became apparent.
I sat up and looked towards the sun. It was sinking into the ocean, layering the sky in uneven smears of purple, yellow and red. The day was ending and I’d already spent most of it asleep, which meant I’d spend most of the night awake. Again.
“Do you know about the alp?”
The deep voice belonged to the large and swarthy man sitting beside me. Ropes of sun-bleached dreadlocks lay slung over his shoulders and down to the small of his back. His name was Gideon and he was as much of a friend as I could claim to have had in that peculiar place. Still, I knew so little about him—where he’d been born, where he had originally lived, or what it was that he loved in this world. I didn’t even know his last name. All I knew was that he had been taken to the beach as I had, all those years ago, and that, like all of us there, he was a far and unconquerable distance from where he truly wished to be.
Through his hair, one eye glistened back at me, the mossy green of pond water. He slid his feet into the sand in front of him and wrapped his arms around his knees.
“No,” I replied. I dusted the sand off my shoulder, trying to seem unaffected. I wondered how long he’d been sitting there, watching me sleep. I wondered if I’d said something I perhaps shouldn’t have.
“It’s a creature,” he said, “that sits on the chest of someone who dreams. It squeezes all the breath out of the body. There was such a thing on your chest while you slept.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said.
“Well, maybe you know this story,” he went on. “There was once a cabinetmaker who lived in a place called Bühl. Have you ever heard of this place?”
I shook my head.
“At night he’d sleep in a bed in his workshop. Around midnight, something would crawl onto his chest and sit on him until he could hardly breathe. After several nights of this, he discussed the matter with a friend. The friend advised him to stay awake in order to catch this märt. So he did. The following night he lay awake in bed, waiting, and as the clock struck twelve, saw a cat slip into his room through a hole in the wall. The cabinetmaker quickly blocked the hole. He caught the cat and nailed one of its paws to the floor. Then he went back to sleep. In the morning he found a beautiful woman sitting where the cat had been. She was naked and one of her hands was nailed to the floorboards. He was so taken by this woman that he decided to marry her. Many years later, after they’d already had three children, he returned with her to his workshop. He pointed to the blocked hole in the wall and said, ‘My darling, my love, mother of my children, it was from here that you came into my life.’ He bent down and opened the hole to show her. And as soon as that hole was opened, the woman changed back into a cat, ran out through the hole, and was never seen again.”
“I didn’t have a dream.”
“Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t, but there was a märt, my friend. Anyway, it is okay to talk about our dreams. I think it’s a good thing.”
He spoke with such authority that, for a moment, I believed him. I believed it was fine, regardless of what we had so frequently been told.
“No one can stop you from dreaming, Mr. Kayle. But go on. Let us dream and hide our dreams from each other as we’ve been told. It is ironic, yes?”
Squatting on his haunches, he dusted his large dry hands together. His hair rolled over his shoulders as he swivelled in his spot towards me. The dreadlocks on the right of his head blazed; to the left his face was caged in twisted bars of shadow.
“They wish us to keep our dreams a secret from each other, to keep them trapped inside us, when it really only makes us dream more. They are making sly, beautiful women of our cats, no?”
Gideon stood and turned his gaze to the shifting ocean. I stared up at his broad and towering form. There were very few people on the beach as large as Gideon, even fewer with the capacity to command the respect that he could, in his own quiet way.
“Strange days,” he murmured under his breath, possibly only to himself. He used his foot to smooth out the print his body had left in the sand, as if in denial of ever having sat beside me, and began to walk away. “Mr. Kayle,” he added, looking back over his shoulder, “the märt on your chest. I’ve seen it before. Stealing your breath in your sleep. For now, know that it is getting bigger, my friend.”
At that, he set off along the white sand towards the group of communers at the end of the beach.
They were going about their usual business, dancing around their colossal fires, yelling their prayers, invoking their stars. Whether they were finding the answers to the questions in each of their steps and mantras, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t even sure that was the point. Perhaps I had missed something. Perhaps it didn’t matter whether they ever truly understood this broken world, only that they considered themselves privileged enough to be seekers within it. For some that may have been enough.
A warm wind whispered in my ear then slipped away, gesturing me to follow it to some secret place. I got to my feet and trudged up the dune towards the road. Ahead, a rusted signboard read
WELCOME WELKOM BETTYSBAAI
Over time, the wind and the rain had faded its colours and eaten into its metal surface. It creaked and teetered from a pole, each geometric letter glaring like the vacant eye of a dead god, a fallen Argus without sway over a nameless world.
The sun had already been swallowed whole and night was draped over the land. The large bonfires along the shore licked the darkness between the silhouettes of anonymous men, women and children—strangers to each other, strangers to themselves–dancing and chanting the last rites for their left-behind lives.
Andy, is that you?
There was a soft rap on the tarp of my tent.
My eyes adjusted to the dimness. Each of the objects in my small space solidified into hard tokens of reality. The crooked silhouette of a person quivered on the side of the tent. I climbed out of bed, opened the entrance, and was hit by the cool night air. Standing before me was a young girl, clenching a shabby teddy bear in her right hand, chewing on the nails of her left.
At first I thought the girl was my daughter, but realised such a visit would be impossible. My daughter was not here. Not on the beach. Not even in the world. My daughter was long dead and this was someone else’s child.
“Did they send you?” I asked as I stepped out. It was still dark but I had no idea for how much longer it would last. I could see the last ribbons of smoke rising from the dying fires in the distance and hear the crackle of enormous embers beneath the babble and murmur of the ocean. The singing and dancing had ended. Most of the communers were asleep.
“Do you have a name?” I asked. She shook her head. “Does your bear? He’s scruffy.”
I wondered how long she had been on the beach, how long it had been since she had seen her family. Did she even remember them, and did they still remember her? Not that it mattered. The longer she stayed, the sooner their faces would become little more than worthless apophenia: Jesus in a slice of burned toast, Mother Mary in a frosted window. She was on the beach and on the beach she would remain. She’d grow up. She’d assimilate. She’d receive her reports and be conditioned to commune. You could bet your life on it, if it were still your life to bet: we were all there to stay.
The girl turned and ran, vanishing into the blackness. I threw on a sweater, grabbed my shoes and made my way up the rickety wooden steps, half-sunken in the dunes and their dull tufts of fynbos shrubberies. I stepped off the sand of the beach, slipped on my shoes, and hiked the winding clay path ahead of me, guided only by the light from the lone white house on the hill.
“What fraction of God’s powers would satisfy you?”
The light of an overhead lamp beamed down on me as I sat in a lone chair in the centre of a stark, featureless room. The rough stone walls were white and bare and a wooden fan
uselessly above the interrogators’ table, accomplishing nothing more than the shifting of stale air.