It’s strange, what disgusts people. Who would scorn the friendship of gecko, for example: golden-eyed, translucent-skinned, toes splayed on a farmhouse wall? Who could resent a long-legged spider, knitting its silver in the corner of a room? But they do: people will pay to have them killed, poisoned, destroyed.
Katya does not destroy. This is her skill, her niche. So she will relocate a wasp nest, reroute a caterpillar invasion, clear a roof of nesting pigeons, wrangle housefuls of mangy cats. She does not turn up her nose at cockroach infestations, gatherings of mice, strange migrations of bees and porcupines. She’s even faced down baboons, although that’s unusually robust work. Generally, she prefers the smaller beasts. She encourages spiders and is friendly to pigeons, which others unkindly call rats of the air. Her philosophy is to respect any creature that gets by in the city, ducking and diving, snatching at morsels, day by day negotiating a new truce with the humans among whom they live. Survivors, squatters, and invaders. Tough buggers. They have their place.
Mostly, they do no real harm. They’re objectionable only because they’ve wandered from their proper zones, or because they trigger human shudders. But Katya does not shudder. Not ever. Slinging a snake round her neck like a scarf, the dry scales smooth as water on her latexed palms—
This is the job: helping these small sojourners in a strange land. Putting the wild back in the wild, keeping the tame tame. Policing borders. Sometimes, part of her wants to reverse the flow, mix it up. Take this box of caterpillars, for example, and tip it out in that Constantia palace they just left, even if it means chaos, screams and ruined dresses, soft bodies crushed into the lawn.
But that’s her dad’s voice. His angry humor.
Len Grubbs: a lifelong vermin man. An exterminator. He never bothered too much with keeping things straight or putting them back in their rightful places. Traps and poison, that was what he knew. He was often bitten—once by a puff adder. Even in that agony, he’d taken care to beat the snake to death. It was hand-to-hand combat, the way Len Grubbs did the job.
Katya’s work, by comparison, is a relatively gentle business, one concerned with rescue and cleansing; but it brings out this mischief in her, this hardness. Perhaps because of what she deals in, what her dad dealt in before her: the unloved. The unlovely.
In Newlands forest, they carry the boxes up through the pines and into a stretch of indigenous trees. Katya’s glad to have Toby with her on this lonely path. It can be nerve-wracking, going into the forest alone, although she likes to think that a woman with a box of repulsive caterpillars pressed to her chest is safe enough against most assaults.
They are in a part of the forest she doesn’t often visit, off the path. This is Toby’s idea. He’s spotted a tree here, apparently just the thing for caterpillars. She notes, with interest, something else about her nephew that she did not know before: this lurking about in forests.
He’s taken his shoes off in the car and his big feet pad confidently ahead of hers on the pine-needle bed. Seeing him move against the branches, some glowing pale in the darkening air, she thinks again that he is like a young tree. Despite his narrow frame, his lank hair, his liquid eyes, Toby is not a limp person. Indeed, he has a kind of springy resilience, like green wood. And there is the vegetable greenness of the veins beneath his skin, his slightly sappy body scent. I’m a vegan now, he told her recently. Perhaps that’s why he’s growing so fast: photosynthesis.
Over the years, Katya has seen him transform from stocky white-blond child into elongated teen. Not pretty; his face is too broad in the forehead and sharp at the chin, the nose overlong. But he does have those luminous eyes set deep behind long lashes, and the thinness of his lips is off set by their charm—the way he presses them together between smiles, restraining soft thoughts. Girls would surely go for that? His height would be in his favor, too, once he filled it out. Broad shoulders. Longshanks. Long fingers, right for guitar-string picking round fires. Tall like his father, no doubt, Katya thinks. Not like us. Toby’s hair is also evidence of his paternity: of the pale father Katya never met, but who seems to be revealing himself in stages through the body of his child, stretching Toby’s teenage limbs, flexing Toby’s long, unGrubbsish fingers.
The Grubbs look is small but well muscled, with short legs and disproportionately long arms. Monkey-folk. Snub, monkeyish faces, too. In her sister Alma it’s cute, with her long pale hair. Katya’s always worn her hair trimmed short, and it’s darker, like her dad’s. They carry themselves the same, straight-backed and quick. Katya’s ears, mysteriously small, must be from the other side; so too, perhaps, her large breasts. But in all other ways, their mother Sylvie’s influence, like her memory, is faint and fading. There are many more body parts in which Katya can discern, all too clearly, Len’s vigorous strain.
She wonders how age has changed her father. Bald, maybe. Last time she saw him, his hair was thinning. His face seemed less balanced, the features fiercer and more pronounced; the eyes and nose had come to dominate his small, rounded head. Len’s expression remained largely the same, however: imperturbable, scornfully amused. She sees that expression often, although she hasn’t seen her father for years now. It’s in her mirror, most mornings.
Toby comes to a halt in a small clearing under a twisted tree. Round the base of the trunk are some planks and smooth stones, arranged in a circle. Candle wax melted onto the stones.
“How did you find this place, anyway?”
Toby shrugs, an exaggerated movement with his newly broad shoulders. “I come here with friends sometimes,” he says.
“Huh,” she says. “Really.”
It is, clearly, a place one would come to smoke pot; she was a teenager too, once. Something else she had not known about Toby.
Katya touches a hard, furred seedpod. It’s a wild almond, the same species Jan van Riebeeck used for his famous hedge, meant to keep Khoisan cattle-raiders out of the old Dutch settlement. Could this even be one of the original trees?
Dad taught me all that, she thinks.
The branches creak and shudder. Toby’s high above her head, his broad feet gripping the trunk.
“Oy, get down here. No time for messing around.” He drops to the ground next to her in a scatter of twigs. Funny child. Cartoon boy. He’s always had these sudden energies and exhaustions, frisking one minute and dropping off the next, falling into a snooze on the spot. He lopes or lounges or mooches; he bops, he buzzes, he bounds. Katya pictures him getting out of bed on a good morning, leaping two-legged into his jeans. When he rests he is inert; awake he is effortlessly alert, bright and clear-eyed. There is no transitional state: Katya has never seen grit or sleep in his eyes.
He crouches next to the collection boxes and looks up at her, waiting.
“You do it, Tobes. You know how.”
She watches him unlatch the lid, lift out a caterpillar in his long fingers and place it on the bark of the tree. He’s developed a confidence in his work: the way he bends to stroke or scoop up some little hapless wayfarer. Some mangy cat or cockroach down on its luck. The family touch.
“How cool is this?” he whispers as the creatures resume their march.
Kneeling side by side, Katya and Toby watch the sinuous threading of the caterpillars’ bodies. The tree is well chosen; the beasts approve. “All done,” he says, his voice softened and deepened by the dusk. A vision from memory fits itself imperfectly over the scene. Surely it was here, or near to here, years ago, and at dusk… She’d been walking… No. That’s not right. She was a child, she was not by herself.
It was the two of them. Her and Dad. She could smell his roll-up tobacco. They’d come out onto a path in the near-darkness, with the trees closing a tunnel above them. They were working.
Look. Dad was down on his haunches, intent, his whole body aimed at a spot on the ground. She crouched down next to him, carefully soundless. Proud of her soft feet, her silent approaches.
A black shape, twitching on the sand. At first she thought it was an insect of some sort, a dull butterfly moving its wings. But, leaning in, she saw it was mammalian: a shrew, the size of the top joint of her thumb, engrossed in some fervid action. So absorbed that it paid them no mind, even when she put her face close. Its pelt was slightly darker than the leaf litter, its paws delicate and fierce. She understood for the first time why shrews were emblems of ferocity, for this tiny creature was engaged in an act of carnage: it was gripping an earthworm that was trying to escape into a hole. The shrew was hauling the slimy pink-gray body out of the ground, hand over hand like a seaman with a fat rope, and simultaneously stuffing it into its jaws, wide open to accommodate the writhing tube. It was ridiculous, obscene, impressive.
They sat there for a long time, watching this miniature savagery, until all the light was gone. Her dad rose to his feet without using his hands. She admired his wiry strength, his woods-sense. She mimicked the movement, swaying a little to keep her balance. Another time, he might have brought the scene to a close with a shout or, worse, a foot-stomp, but that evening he stood quietly. It was not often that her father went so still.
The silence of that long-ago evening, the tree-trunks black against a luminous evening sky. . . the scene has a religious feeling in her memory. Is it possible that Len took her hand to lead her down through the trees? Surely not.
“Hey,” says Toby. “It’s not working.”
It’s quite dim under the tree where he released the caterpillars. Some cling to the bark, some have fallen to the ground, some are wandering off into the undergrowth. The discipline of the corps has been shattered, the general has lost his command.
“They’re not swarming like they were.”
She shrugs. It’s true. She’s tired. “We tried, Tobes. We can’t win ’em all.” He looks so downcast, she doesn’t add that most of the catch will be devoured by birds, otters, snakes. The mountain is full of such tiny battles. It’s all contested territory, overlapping, three-dimensional, fiercely patrolled. Millions of miniature turfs, the size of her palm, of her footprint, her fingernail.
Katya stands and brushes the leaf mulch from her knees. “Get us out of here, Tobes. I’m hopelessly lost.” Although it’s not really possible to lose yourself here in the forest, with the mountain on one side and the city on the other.
Toby points and moves, stepping long-legged over logs and pushing through dry bracken; not the direction she would have chosen. Some small thing goes scuttling away from them, unseen at their feet in the undergrowth. There is a chatter, a rustle, a clap of wings. She imagines the caterpillars finding their spoor, inching slowly home behind them.
Coming out from under the trees, Toby and Katya stand for a moment entranced by broader views. The switchbacking path pauses here on a bare shoulder, allowing them views up to the exposed face of the mountain, and down, out to the sweep of the city below.
“Let’s go home, Tobes. Before it gets dark.”
From NINEVEH. Used with permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2016 by Henrietta Rose-Innes.