Caterpillars? Easy, thinks Katya. Even these, thick-clustered, obscuring a tree from bole to crown and shivering their orange hairs. Caterpillars she can deal with.
Still, it’s a strange sight, this writhing tree: a tree in mortification. Particularly here, where the perfect lawn slopes down to the grand white house below, between clipped flowerbeds flecked with pink and blue.
Off to the side, just in the corner of her vision, a gardener is trimming the edge of the lawn, his eyes on Katya and the boy and not on his scissoring blades. Rising behind the scene is the Constantiaberg. It’s an autumn day, cool but bright. The mountains look their age, wrinkled and worn and shouted down by the boisterous sky. It’s a lovely afternoon for a garden party.
But at the centre of the picture is an abomination. This single tree sleeved with a rind of invertebrate matter, with plump, spiked bodies the colour of burnt sugar. It’s possible to imagine that the whole tree has been eaten away, replaced by a crude facsimile made of caterpillar flesh.
“Toby. Gloves,” Katya says, snapping her fingers and holding them out stiffly.
Her nephew rolls his eyes – particularly effective, with those large pale orbs, green with the whites visible clean around the irises – but leans down from his superior height to press a crumpled ball of latex into her palm.
The gloves are important. Katya is not at all squeamish about cold-blooded, squishy things, but some caterpillars have irritant spines. Thick gardening gloves are too unwieldy for this fine work, and Katya also prefers the feel of the latex: it deadens, but in tamping down the background stimuli, it also seems to isolate specific sensations. The gravelly landscape of bark, the warmth of skin without its friction. The gloves are part of the uniform, along with the steel-toed boots and lurid overalls. Her signature colour: poison-toad green, boomslang green. While they are working, the uniform separates her and Toby from the pastel colours of lawn and flowers. They are all business.
Katya shakes out the gloves and works them onto her hands. “We need to get some talc. Didn’t I ask you to get some talc?”
Eye-roll. “Ja ja,” he says, fiddling with his silver-blond hair, which is scraped back into a scraggy bun with a rubber band. He’s been growing it ever since he left school a few months ago. He’s always ripping off the elastic, or jamming it closer to his scalp by yanking at the strands, a sight which makes Katya’s own hair prickle at the roots. Aunt and nephew both have their fringes pulled away from their faces in a practical way – although if you look closer this impression is diluted: the hairclips are sparkly, meant for little girls. Toby has supplied them and Katya wonders about their source. They are the kind of thing a teenage girl might wear, to be cute. One of several recent signs that her nephew might be in intimate contact with young ladies. What is he now, seventeen? Half her own age – a calculation that dismays her. What has she gained, in that doubled time?
“Come, pull it together.”
He smiles at her appeasingly. Toby’s smile has a comic quality to it: his teeth are small and gappy, milk-toothy almost. Pink, clean gums like a puppy’s. With his mouth open, he seems much younger than his years. Katya often wants to tell him to relax. In repose, when he thinks no one is looking, his face falls into lovely sombre lines; like his mother, slight melancholy suits him.
First, Katya appraises the swarm, walking around the tree and glancing up and down, guessing at numbers. Then she leans in, nose centimetres from the dorsal hairs of the creatures on the bark.”
The uniform fits Toby better than it does her. They don’t make them in short, busty women’s sizes. Katya’s is rolled in the leg and tight in the chest. You can get Chinese ones, made for smaller people, although not for ones with bosoms. But Toby, slender and tall, fits his like a bricklayer, a ditch-digger. Like someone who’s meant to be wearing it.
Toby’s job, largely, is to do the heavier lifting; there is surprising strength in those spidery limbs. Katya watches him as he positions the first plywood box and the tin chute, all made to her careful specifications. Once everything is in place, he steps back and holds one arm behind his back at the elbow as he stares up at the tree. The posture is hard to pull off with excess meat on your torso. Or breasts. It’s a pose Katya’s seen adopted by lean farm labourers out in the country. Like them, Toby knows how to conserve his energy.
It is, in fact, the same stance as the lanky gardener’s, who stands downslope with his arms and his bent leg mirroring Toby’s, his overalls faded blue to Toby’s bright green, his skin dark to Toby’s paleness. It’s like they’re waiting to perform some kind of symmetrical dance.
Time to move into action. First, Katya appraises the swarm, walking around the tree and glancing up and down, guessing at numbers. Then she leans in, nose centimetres from the dorsal hairs of the creatures on the bark. You have to find the chief caterpillar, the general. (A general and not a queen. To Katya, disregarding the facts of biology, all caterpillars are male: foot soldiers. Perhaps it is their small, helmeted heads.) With one hand Katya reaches in, breaches the flow and picks out a robust individual, one who looks fat and juicy and determined, and with a particularly fine ruff of orange fur.
It is best if the client is there to witness this ritual, to see the skill involved, but in this case the client is so repelled that she’s observing from a distance of a hundred metres. Katya can see her down there in a blue dress, hands on broad hips, watching as waiters and servants scurry behind her. Music is striking up. A classy party: they have employed a string quartet. There is a line of white-sheeted trestle tables, caterers laying out plates and glasses. Soon the guests will be here.
Katya places her prize wriggler on the rim of the tin spout, head downwards, urging him on with little prods. Then the trick is to get the next one in line latched on, and then the next, following on the numerous soft heels of his brother. Once they are in the narrowing chute, it’s hard for them to reverse direction, back into the stream. The system is designed that way. Once you get some movement going, it’s easier: caterpillars, like migrating wildebeest – very slow, small ones – have a strong herding impulse. They sense a stirring, they start to push. Perhaps they feel some dim invertebrate anxiety: that the swarm has not yet been consummated, that this is not the right tree, that a better tree awaits, that they will be left behind. This is as far as her study of caterpillar psychology goes.
Soon, there is a modest caravan of furry beasts marching down the spout. A conga line. Once it’s happening, it is beautiful, in a way: a river of caterpillar flesh flowing down the tree, peeling away, leaving the branches stripped and affronted. Once the leader drops off the end of the spout and into the box, there’s no going back, no turning tail.
“Yeehaw,” says Toby. He jiggles side to side, excited by the slow stampede of the worms.
The swarm is quite extensive: only the one tree, but it’s a thick and comprehensive infestation. It takes two boxes. They’re custom carriers, holes punched in the wooden lids to let the catch breathe. Katya closes the boxes up and latches them tight, then stacks them one on top of the other. Surprisingly heavy, and shifting slightly. Katya puts her ear to the lid and can hear them moving: a damp sound, not the dry scuttle you get with your hard-shelled customers. They’re strong, these small creatures, working together. Individually, easily crushed beneath the heel; but if they all pulled together… she pictures them carrying her off, and Toby too.
“Alright, Tobes,” Katya says. “Mission accomplished. Let’s get these cuties out of here.”
Toby loops his long arms around the boxes and lifts them from her. Then he balances them on top of his head, a hand on each side, and ambles down the lawn, singing happily to himself. It sounds like ‘I Shot the Sheriff’.
It can’t be helped: Toby’s a sweet-natured kid. He has a radiance to him that communicates alertness, good spirits, a readiness to greet the world and give it the benefit. Katya is fleetingly ashamed of wishing him older, cooler; for imagining the years of his youth away.
The gardener, who’s drifted closer, looks at her and she smiles. She’s easier with this man than she would be if she were out of uniform.
“How will you kill them?” he asks.
“We release them into the wild,” she says. “It’s a strictly no-kill policy.”
This is the point at which most people start to laugh, or wrinkle their faces in disgust. But the gardener just nods in a thoughtful way, snicking closed the jaws of his clippers.
As they near the house, Katya can see that guests have started to arrive. Middle-aged men in pastel shirts and slacks, women in summer dresses. She and Toby are not dressed to blend in here, with their bright green Painless Pest Relocations overalls and their palpitating capture boxes.
Now Katya sees again, down towards the swimming pool, the figure of their employer, Mrs Brand, gesturing tightly up at them. Shakes of the head, shooing gestures. She’s ashamed of her caterpillar problem. The creatures have swarmed overnight, disgusting her; she cannot allow them to perform their congregation in sight of her fastidious guests.
Well, Katya has no desire to mingle with the party-goers; but the woman’s rudeness wakes inside her an inner voice. Fuck you, lady, it says. Katya smiles and keeps on walking. Toby peers at her from around the boxes.
“Just keep going,” Katya says.
They pick their way down to the front entrance. A few guests stand next to the organically curved pool, drinks in hand; as the PPR work party comes through, they scatter instinctively. Katya and Toby are like people in hazmat suits, their catch pulsing radioactive in their hands. If Katya could rattle like a snake, she would.
Their employer is a foursquare, handsome lady, with short frosted hair. Her dress – waist cinched between broad hips and bosom – matches eyes so blue they look almost blind. Those eyes are fixed on Toby and Katya with open hostility, as if she suspects they really are going to rip open the boxes and strew worms around.
“You were supposed to be done by three,” she hisses.
Katya matches her stare with a blank one of her own. “Sorry. Coming through.”
This job. It brings it out in her.
Specifically, it’s the uniform. When Katya puts on her greens, something changes in her. She becomes cockier, more aggressive. but in the passive way of a servant. Also more stylised in her movements and her words: acting out the role of a working man. It’s heady. But peel off her boiler suit and she’s soft again, a lamb, a girl.
The house has a large parking area, at the end of a shaded driveway, which has started to fill up with luxury cars. Katya opens the back of the minivan, her pride and joy. The van’s not exactly new, but she likes the fact that it’s knocked and dinged and gritty, carrying traces of its previous owner. You can tell it was ridden half to death by some mean old bugger with a bony arse – the driver’s seat is so hollowed out, Katya needs two cushions to see over the steering wheel. She’s fitted the vehicle with bars, turning the rear into a cage like a dog-catcher’s, and given it a bright-green paint job. It now bears the legend Painless Pest Relocations, with neat line-drawings of her own design: rat, pigeon and spider.
While Toby loads the carry-cases into the back of the van, Katya takes a wooden cigar box from the glove compartment and transfers four or five caterpillars into it.
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
She snaps the box shut and spins around. The voice comes from the flowerbed – no, it’s a rock garden, with an ivy-covered arbour behind it on a small rise. Katya makes out a figure sitting in its shady depths. Drinking. He raises his glass in a cheery salute, then beckons her closer.
“Just a sec,” she says to Toby. A paved path winds up to the grotto.
Closer, Katya sees he’s a large man, sitting on a throne-like wrought-iron bench with arm-rests in the shape of dragons’ heads. His legs are thrust out in front of him and a tendril of ivy tickles his brow. Shirt loose at the collar, a whisky tumbler askew in his fist.
So, he says. Caterpillar wrangling. Nice job for a girl. What else can you do?”
She stands in front of him, waiting. This is another thing the uniform achieves. As it eased her interaction with the gardener, so too it helps her do business with what is, clearly, a boss. Usually, in front of someone like this – evidently a rich man, powerful, older – Katya would feel awkward. She’d wonder how to stand, what to do with her hands, what to say. But here, now, her posture and her role are clear. He can talk to her if he wants. Or she can walk away. All part of the job.
It’s also his evident pissedness that puts her at her ease. He seems a benevolent drunk, squinting up at her from behind the ivy.
Katya doesn’t find drunken people difficult. Unless they are threatening or loud, they can be quite soothing company. She feels less observed around them, and there’s something touching in the way they allow themselves to be seen, in this foolish, almost infantile state. And although they are in one sense blurred by the liquor, there is also a film peeled back, an occlusion lifted.
Right now, she feels free to pass her eyes over this man’s suit, his watch, his hair, his fittings and fixtures. The man is solid, meaty. His mouth and nose are strong, large enough to balance the broad face, but finely cut. The face of a Roman emperor, past his prime and in his cups. When he smiles he shows one greyed-out canine, the same colour as his hair. In his fifties, maybe.
“Let’s have a look at the merchandise,” he says.
Katya opens the lid of the box, tilting it to show him the brownish caterpillars.
Most people would recoil, exclaim at least. But in his face there is nothing: no revulsion, no interest either. He sips his drink, and then, with a casual flick of the wrist, dribbles a splash of the liquor into the box.
Katya snatches it away. “What’s that for?”
He shrugs. “They can’t feel much, surely? Stuff’s nutritious.”
She scowls and closes the lid carefully on the squirming creatures.
“So,” he says. “Caterpillar wrangling. Nice job for a girl. What else can you do?” He has a pleasant voice, lighter and more musical than his bulk would suggest.
“Caterpillars, snakes, frogs, slugs, baboons, rats, mice, snails, pigeons, ticks, geckos, flies, fleas, cockroaches.” Katya observes his face for reaction. Men are generally more squeamish about these things. “Bats. And spiders.”
He laughs – a laugh like the bark of a sizeable dog – and swirls his drink, as if her recitation has made him happy, has confirmed something for him. “I see. The whole gang. The unlovely. The unloved!”
He’s not as drunk as she’d thought. His layers are shifting: filming and folding. One has just pulled back to reveal something hard and clear. Whisky sloshing back in the glass to show the ice.
“Would you like a business card?” Katya asks.
He’s hugely amused by her, slapping a splayed thigh. “Sure, why not? Cards are good. A card would be fantastic.”
There’s a gold signet ring on his right hand. He looks at her with his eyes half closed in the late afternoon sun, wells of grey liquid glinting between the lids. Behind her, Katya senses Toby fidgeting with the car keys. The shadows are lengthening.
“In my top pocket,” Katya says, leaning forward to him. It’s a move that would show cleavage, normally, but as she is all buttoned up in froggy green, it’s more of an aggressive gesture. What it does is tip her breast pocket open, enough to show him a pack of business cards.
He does not hesitate. Smiling still in that slit-eyed way that reveals little, he reaches up and tweezes a single card from her pocket. His hands are thick, nails broad but manicured. He taps the card across the open mouth of his tumbler, examining it seriously.
She’s proud of the card: PPR: Painless Pest Relocations, it says. Plain font. Nothing cute, just the facts. Rat, pigeon, spider. Simple, accurate line drawings. It bothers her slightly that they are not to scale, but there is only so much you can achieve on a business card. Underneath it, her name: Katya Grubbs.
“Grubbs,” he says, and she waits for the laugh. Most people make a comment, something about the name fitting the work, etcetera. But he’s looking at it with a frown, holding it too long. “This is not you.”
“Yes it is.”
He looks up at her, sharp now. “I thought I told my wife not to hire you lot.”
“Grubbs, I wouldn’t forget the name. Last year. Nineveh.”
Nineveh? Katya shakes her head, mystified.
“Grubbs, Grubbs…” He clicks his fingers. “Len Grubbs.”
Katya’s back teeth click together. “That would be my father.”
“Same crew, though?”
“No, I’m different – different company, different approach.”
“I’m humane. Painless. Different.”
He taps his knuckle with the edge of the card. “Huh. Well, you better be. Because your father ripped me off quite spectacularly, you know that? Len Grubbs. Took my money, fucked around, fucked off. You can tell him I said so.”
Katya feels herself standing oddly, stiff and tight. The magic of the uniform failing. She makes herself shrug, casual. “I have nothing to do with that. I haven’t seen him for years.”
He looks at her, nods and tucks her card into his top pocket. Crisp in the heat: fine cotton, no doubt. The man is sweating booze, but his clothes are holding up.
And now here is the bluebell hostess at the corner of the house, gesticulating with her glass. Irritation registers in a momentary immobility of the man’s face but he gets to his feet, still smiling pleasantly. His movements are sharper and more energetic than a drunk man’s have any right to be. “Well, we’ll give you a try, I suppose. I might have some more work coming up.” Then he leans forward and slips his own card – appearing magically in his palm, a trick – into her pocket. Katya feels it through the material, sliding in. “I do think I prefer my caterpillar wranglers, ah…” – and he looks her up and down, the ghost of a wink – “painless.”
As the PPR van labours up the steep driveway, Toby is uncharacteristically still. A capture box is on his lap, his long fingers resting lightly on its lid, and every now and then he drums on the wood with his index and middle fingers: a private, soothing rhythm. Poor little creatures, torn away, their pilgrimage denied.
“What was that all about?” asks Toby, rather sternly. “That dude.”
“Nothing. Just the boss.” And she changes to first so that the sound of the engine stops further conversation. But around the curve of the driveway, she pulls over and takes out the cigar box, slides it open.
She cranks down the van window and tosses the caterpillars into the shrubbery. “A bit of insurance. Gives us something to come back for, next time.”
“Aunt Katya!” Toby laughs. “Wicked! Where did you learn that one?”
She takes a second to answer. “My dad,” she says. “My dad taught me that one.”
Extracted from Nineveh, out now from Aardvark Bureau
Henrietta Rose-Innes is a novelist and short-story writer from Cape Town, currently living in the UK while completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia. She won the Caine Prize for African Writing 2008 and the HSBC/PEN Short Story Prize 2007 and was runner-up in the BBC Short Story Award 2012. Her work is included in The Granta Book of the African Short Story (2011) and has been published in a number of languages, including French, Spanish and German. Nineveh is published in paperback and eBook by Aardvark Bureau.
Author portrait © Martin Figura