by Eric G. Müller
Every few weeks we’d get in the car and drive the hundred and five miles from Empangeni to Durban, where I had been born. It was a necessity for my mother, who needed the cultural stimulus of the city to get her through the tediousness of living in a ‘one-horse town,’ as she used to refer to Empangeni.
She’d been well known in the music circles of Durban, first as a child prodigy playing piano, later as a singer, making records, giving recitals, and on one occasion, performing for the State President. She gave up the life of the stage when she married, which subsequently took her all over Europe, then back to South Africa — first to Cape Town and now to Empangeni, Zululand, just two hours north of Durban.
The first couple of times we drove down to Durban, my mother looked up her old friends and acquaintances, wanting to reconnect after so many years abroad. Some had died, most had moved away, and the visits to the remaining few decreased with time, until our regular trips consisted of going shopping, visiting the snake park or the botanical gardens, having lunch and going to a concert or a movie.
Toward the end of our time in Empangeni my mother needed to get out and go to Durban more often, almost with a vengeance. I presumed that Mom and Dad were going through a bit of a rough patch. There were times I caught her crying by herself in her room. And my father spent more time at the Country Club playing golf with the ‘boys,’ or volunteering at the Lion’s club. He hardly ever accompanied us on these last few trips down to the city. It was mostly just the four of us: Granny, Mom, my older brother George, and me.
After one particular trip we were driving back to Empangeni in the dark. I was twelve at the time. We must have gone to a concert or a movie, because usually we returned while it was still light. Though it was night-time my mother was speeding. She was a careful driver, but lately I’d noticed that she would race along at seventy or eighty miles per hour — and on predominantly narrow and windy roads with potholes. And I, in turn, broke up the journey into stages, thus hoping to speed up the trip.
Getting out of the city was the first stage, followed by a drive along the newly tarred road that hugged the Indian Ocean to Umhlanga Rocks, where we turned inland shortly after Salt Rock Beach all the way to Stanger; and then to Gingindlovu and the Eshowe exit, which was the most boring part of the trip.
When we came to the Forest Drive-in just a few miles south of the Mtenzini turnoff we’d reached the three-quarter mark. Once we got to Felixton, I knew we only had seven more miles to go — the last leg of the journey. By the time we got home I was usually asleep.
Already after the Eshowe exit the road became narrower and bumpier. But my mother barely slowed down, not deterred in the slightest by patches of fog that suddenly hampered our sight.
We were unusually quiet in the car that night. Often we’d chat and laugh about the day’s events. Not this time. My grandmother had scarcely said a word the whole trip, nor had my elder brother. And I knew better than to disturb him when he was in one of his foul moods. So I just strained my eyes ahead, seeing the ribbon of road roll toward us in the bleak yellow headlights. The fog was intensifying and still my mother sped on.
It was about five miles before the Mtenzini Beach turnoff when we entered another semi-foggy patch. In the distance I saw a horse standing at the side of the road, the front legs on the shoulder, about to step across. I wondered what it was doing there all alone, standing right by the yellow line so late at night.
Still my mother kept her speed. As I’d anticipated, the horse started to cross the road. At this point I fully expected my mother to slow down, to let it pass. There was time enough yet, if she’d only slam on the brakes. But she didn’t. She just kept on speeding along at a dogged seventy miles per hour.
It happened very quickly. The horse was now almost right in the middle of the narrow road, walking very slowly. It did not seem to be aware of us. I wondered why my grandmother or George didn’t say anything, why they just sat there motionless as if we weren’t in the gravest danger. But then again, I sat there too, in a frozen state.
Now I knew for certain: we would hit the horse! We were too close! There was no escape! I braced myself for the impact and shouted, “Watch out for that horse!” Anticipating the crash, I held on tightly to the front seat, feeling sorry for the horse. But the moment of contact came and passed — we drove straight through its rump. I was astounded. Had we missed the horse after all? It had looked like such a sure hit. I felt relieved.
“What did you say?” my mother asked, taken aback by my sudden shouting, finally slowing down.
“Didn’t you see the horse? I thought we’d crash right into it.”
“Horse? I saw no horse.”
“You didn’t see a horse? What about you, Granny?”
“No, I didn’t see anything.”
Suddenly I felt ashamed at having blurted out in fear for nothing. We drove on in silence, and I wondered about what I’d seen. How could they not have noticed anything? Was it just my perspective from the back seat? No, there was no denying it. There’d been a horse and it had crossed the road. I’d witnessed it, and the memory was clear — the slow, undulating movements of the big and heavy horse as it crossed the road in the swirling fog, oblivious of our coming.
But the longer I thought about it, the more I questioned the veracity of what I’d seen. I glanced furtively over to George, scared that he’d make some cynical remark. But he looked straight ahead, aloof.
But as I turned away I heard him say, “I saw it too.” His voice was soft, but distinct. Again I looked at him, but he was staring stonily in front of him, just as before.
Shortly after this incident we moved away from Empangeni.
Copyright © 2010 by Eric G. Müller