BH Two / Prose Poetry / Writers / Writing

THE WISDOM OF JOHN IN WINTER by Philip Vermaas

PART 1

John lives on the farm with Alice and their two
boys. John is a calm, talented man, full of ironic
humour and strength. Alice, talented too, does
domestic chores, while John takes care of the
machines, plants, vegetables and fields. When
necessary they help each other and both adapt
readily to anything the farm needs.

It’s winter and the trees are shedding swiftly
and John is more frequently raking leaves that
fall around the main house; it’s become a daily
chore.

“The trees are like the geese,” he tells me in
his deep, calm voice. “While I rake,” he
demonstrates with big gestures, “leaves fall
right behind my back.”

“But how are they like geese?” I ask.

“The geese,” he says, bending forward, “they
eat,” he points to his mouth, while his other hand
waves at his bottom, “and while they eat, it goes
out the other end. Just like the trees.”

PART 2

John and Alice work hard. He has also taken on
the role of farm security, and has, more than
once, chased a gang of crooks on his own with
two pangas and no fear.

They don’t drink during the week, not a drop.
They drink on the weekend, and drink wine till
the big box is done. A drunken night, Alice
screamed for help; John was trying to hang
himself from a tree. It was suggested it is in
his character to be dramatic, after a few drinks.

But he hates the crooks, whom he sees
everywhere in the new South Africa, from the
squatters to the top of the ANC. He won’t
let his sons be schooled at an English school. He
is proud of his Zulu roots, and so doubly beset
by the new world misery.

Many wise men, surveying their country, must
have thought to hang themselves from trees.

PART 3

John is raking again today, and, as is our
custom, we have a brief talk. He’s looking out
for his eldest son, due back from school. John
suspects his son has been hanging out at a local
arcade. John dislikes the local arcade, which is
frequented by youths from the squatter camp.
“At the camp,” he says,“they are not like us.
Everything is quick there, they build a tin
house and dig up the grass to have a dance space
while good music [he smiles ironically] comes
out from four big speakers, so tall. The women
fight there, they lift up short skirts and go so,”
and he does a jig as if he’s hiking a skirt and
prancing into a boxing ring. Like the geese and
trees, it makes him smile. “In the camp you have
a friend today, he is your neighbour, and then
tomorrow he’s not your friend. And blood solves
everything there. Two men find money together
to share one beer and one man drinks it all down,
quickly down, like so, and then they fight. They
fight to blood over one beer. This is man, not like
the dog or the cow or the horse or the owl.”

He spots his son coming home, and secretly,
carefully, seriously, watches him, looking for
some sign of guilt or defiance, and I realize then
that John is a good father.

And shakes his head as one resigned, lest he
become angry, but resignation, as has been said
to me, might be an expression of resilience. He
didn’t, after all, hang himself from that tree.

Many good fathers, surveying their country,
must have thought to hang themselves from
trees.

May this country come to summer, when only
weak leaves fall from trees.

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5 thoughts on “THE WISDOM OF JOHN IN WINTER by Philip Vermaas

  1. Philip Vermaas was born to an actor and stage manager who were touring a play through the otherwise artistically barren towns of the Orange Free State in early 1970s South Africa. For the first months of his life he lived in a cardboard box among misfit actors and similarly afflicted crew. They called him King Fred. He has travelled a bit and spent years in Scotland and a couple in England. Now, through twists of fate, he’s holed up in a cottage in semi-rural Johannesburg with his true love while he thinks, writes, smokes and holds her close. Recently, The Blue Hour published a full length book of his poetry, Better Cigarettes and Other Poems.

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