Settler’s Way

The road’s an arrow shooting at the land’s heart, an arm reaching out to grasp the north. It bears the ceaseless sweep and swish of tyres and the moulded gleam of metal bodies in the newest thrilling shapes. Once these were plodding hooves which trod the years’ ruts in the dust as the wagons creaked their northward way amid the rawhide crack of whips. Even now, in the steel and plastic rush whose tempo makes redundant the long days of stubborn toil, I still feel across the years the ceaseless tread which wore this conquering track into a continent.

There’s a break in traffic. With a sudden, sliding shift across my vision, the cushioned hustle of my modern life suspends. The century’s roar abruptly muffles, and the rasp of dust and heat invades my air-conditioned chill. Ahead, the dusty wagon shimmers in the gap, still slogging north, swaying while the stolid cattle twitch their tails at flies, or at the passing cars.

In my charmed and floating hush I draw abreast; our paces match. The child is silent on the wagon seat, her faded dress and bonnet wan under our modern sun. She turns her patient gaze to mine, but doesn’t smile.

I don’t know what exchange we make. The yoke pulls obstinately north, forever. The silent world resurges in a roar of sound. Child and wagon and their patient span dissolve and fade, frail as the smoke which rises from the shantytowns to drift to fragments in the hurtling traffic’s wake.

10 thoughts on “Settler’s Way”

  1. Lovely – very glad that a traditional-ish ghost story arose from this theme. I like the sense of the mystical about the writing – and the strange pathos wrt our current age – very romantic.

    Really like the sense of timelessness with the ghost ‘She turns her patient gaze to mine, but doesn’t smile’ as opposed to the the ‘steel and plastic rush’.

    I found the sentence ‘I don’t know what exchange we make’ a little confusing; perhaps because exchange implies more than a shared look. I also think the end is a bit abrupt – but perhaps that is the hurried nature of modernity.

    In my brain I was having slight imagery difficulty in that I couldn’t settler on a US open country pioneer feeling or a South African Karoo loneliness – for me a few more hard details might have pinned the ghost imagery better.

  2. Hah! I definitely meant the “I don’t know what exchange we make” to imply huge amounts more than the simple exchange of looks. Exchange of the wagon for the modern car, the past for the present, the old settler’s way for the New South Africa. In some ways it’s the hinge point of the fic. It’s interesting that you find the ending abrupt – I was trying for a sense of a fragmentary encounter, a moment in time, suspended and then gone, and I may have to look at that again.

    I thought I’d anchored it indelibly in Cape Town with the title – I also think “span” is specific to the African trek experience, but I may be wrong :>. I was even thinking that it’s a pity it’s so specific, I usually prefer to universalise a lot more than that.I probably need to bulk the specifics a bit, as you suggest, as I don’t think it works as well as a generalised setting, the political subtexts are very South African.

  3. I second the yay for classical ghost story.
    The title definitely set me in Cape Town, even though I never call that road that.
    It was a bit spooky without being scary.

    I did find this thick, kind of dry, and a bit hard to read, though.
    Maybe I just need to do more proper like book reading.

    I particularly enjoyed:
    > cushioned hustle of my modern life

    1. It is remotely possibly you find this a bit dense and hard to read because it hasn’t translated at all well from iambic pentameter. It started life as a rather unsuccessful sonnet with a mutant extra line, and suffers from lingering poetic over-compression. I found it very difficult to rewrite it because the metre had colonised my BRAIN! I’m actually not madly happy with it, it might after all have been better as a sonnet. Your point is thus well taken :>.

  4. I didn’t find this one hard to read but I didn’t really feel anything either.

    I did like this line a lot – “It bears the ceaseless sweep and swish of tyres and the moulded gleam of metal bodies in the newest thrilling shapes.” It rung my Top Gear bell and I had to smile 😀

  5. I enjoyed the ideas in this and a lot of the imagery, especially: “the steel and plastic rush whose tempo makes redundant the long days of stubborn toil”; “frail as the smoke which rises from the shantytowns”; and the child in her faded dress turning her head and not smiling. I also enjoyed the gentle, almost-sad tone.

    I liked the abrupt ending – it seemed appropriate for a momentary ghostly encounter with the past – and a reflection on our hurried modern lives epitomised by the busy road.

    I also found it dense and hard to read, though. I would like to read this as a sonnet, as I suspect that you are correct, Doc, that it will work better. The beginning especially has a definite rhythm to it, and it feels like every word counts and must be slowly appreciated, which is often how I read poetry.

    I occasionally found the apostrophes a little overused, as in: “The road’s an arrow shooting at the land’s heart”. Their closeness here felt a little awkward.

  6. Hello!

    Thirds on the dense and hard to read, particularly the first paragraph. After that, the actual encounter, is haunting and beautiful, and the story actually grew on me after the first paragraph.

    I am not fond of the trekker vibe and would have also preferred to see this in a more generic setting – it reminds me too much of a set poem in its current form.

    I don’t see this as a traditional ghost story, by the way, more an allegory about changing times.

    1. Lady who always “gets” my stories… it is, indeed, entirely an allegory about changing times. (However, free gratis background fact: the original poem was inspired by a rather vivid hallucination while driving on the N2 at sunset when very, very tired). I’m torn about the trekker vibe, it’s absolutely not my thing, but conversely I don’t think the encounter works with any other political backdrop.

      I need to nuke the first paragraph from orbit and rewrite it without looking at the original poem, which may allow me to exorcise the relentless iambic pentameter, I agree that it’s a bit much.

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