SMOKE: Horror In The Haystack

Originally published: 20 October 2004

Today's story is a sort of Mark Twain down the river piece, inspired by two memories: summer holidays and the Haystack House.

It happened back in 1983 - the same year Laingsburg found itself underwater in one of South Africa's most famous flooding disasters ever.

I've written before about the house I used to live in in Pretoria, which had a river that ran through it for dozens of kilometres either way. It was called the Moreleta Spruit and came - I believe - from the Hartebeespoort Dam and disappeared into the industrial area of Silverton.

One of the features of the river was a nature trail which ran along the far shore - it was a path beaten through the dense undergrowth by countless explorers and fishermen and residents of the houses that lined the shores of the river, and no matter how often we tackled it to see where it began and ended - we never found the end.

That nature trail was a constant source of entertainment for us kids. Many's the hot summer afternoon we spent in imaginary worlds up and down the trail, pretending to be soldiers and assassins and snipers and pirates.

One particularly hazy, sweltering afternoon during our school holidays I went off with my little sister to see what we could find. We attacked the trail armed with provisions (basically a handful of stolen Marie biscuits and an apple each) and set out on what we believed would be an epic journey.

By way of variation we went the opposite way to the route we usually took - a route that was far darker and more foreboding than our usual one.

We only got about six or seven houses down the trail until we saw it, nestled at the bottom of a steep hill - an exquisite haystack house. It really was a serious work of art - someone had clearly spent a long time building it.

It was only about a metre high - about my height - and it had a sloping roof made out of tightly compacted hay. There was even a door you could go through if you crouched, and you could sit inside and stare out at the people walking past on the trail.

Naturally all plans of adventure were canned in light of recent events - I'd always dreamed of finding my own deserted house. We unpacked our lunch and sat inside eating quietly so as not to alert the German soldiers who were bound to be lurking somewhere nearby.

But sitting inside a haystack house isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially under the African sun in mid-fury. We were absolutely cooking within minutes and had to get out, and from there - our provisions depleted - we had nothing more to do.

Until I was hit by a brainwave.

The haystack house was at the bottom of a very steep incline which disappeared high above us, and ordering my sister to come with me (she'd long since learned that to disobey a direct order in my military setup was not a smart option - on Monday morning school shoes had a nasty way of not being where you left them on Sunday night before you went to bed), we climbed the hill about halfway.

Then we turned and ran down the hill, launching into the air near the bottom and landing square in the middle of the haystack house.

I'd never had so much fun - time and again we went up the hill and leaped down onto the house, which by the end was simply a huge pile of hay. Then we jumped around in the hay, covering each other and diving into it and screaming with laughter, until the thing was completely and utterly decimated.

I came up from inside the hay with a pile of it on my head and looking up the hill I saw five or six kids running full tilt down it. I could read in their body language that they weren't rushing to make friends and grabbing my sister by the collar we fled.

But we didn't run - somewhere in my dense skull I had gotten it into my head that if we just walked away calmly they might not think it was us who had ruined their beautiful house, but just like any other kid with a lie and evidence to the contrary - both my sister and I were covered from head to toe in hay.

So the bizarre scenario ensued where those big Afrikaans kids caught up to us and followed us - right on our heels - all the way home. We just held hands in terror and kept walking, not looking behind us, and eventually we got to the crossing that took us over the river to our house.

We crossed the stones and they followed. Then we had a steep climb up our own hill, at the top of which was a fence which marked the start of our garden.

We went through the fence and closed it behind us, and then we ran - we absolutely hauled ass up the garden (which was massive). Turning to look I saw all the kids standing at the fence - not saying a word - just staring balefully through it.

By this time the shock set in and we both started bawling like babies from fright. Our mother naturally enquired as to what was going on. I couldn't tell her what we'd done so I came up with a whole story about how they had attacked my sister for absolutely no reason, and my mother - being wise in such matters - told us to stay behind while she went to talk to them.

We watched in horrified fascination as my mother walked down the garden to the band of mutants standing at the fence, and for about 10 minutes she stayed there talking to them.

It was too far away for us to hear anything, but the longer it went on the more I knew I was sunk. I guess I'd been hoping my mother would yell at them to go away or something, but alas it was not to be.

Eventually she came back, and a bolt of lightning tore the sky in half.

Forcing us to go with her she led us back down the garden to the madding crowd, whereupon we were instructed to apologise - in Afrikaans - for what we'd done. Shame-faced and tearful we did so, although not an expression even flinched - they remained stoney-faced throughout it all.

Nasty little story? Sure - but the true shame was yet to come.

My mother realised that a simple apology was not going to restore the house those kids had built, and my sister and I were instructed to go back - with the mutants - and rebuild their house.

We had no choice but to do so. We spent the rest of that stifling hot day trying our best to erect something approximating what they had done, while the kids sat on the hill and watched our every move. There were a couple of low murmurs amongst them but for the most part they just sat there, staring at us in hatred.

They were obviously pretty well brought up kids, with good manners - they couldn't bring themselves to actually have a major go at us. They should have just given me a good donnering and sent us on our way.

But instead they sat there simmering while we sweated it amongst the weevils and mites and pollen and hay dust, and by the end of it we had a crude shelter for them - but nothing that even resembled their first effort.

We could hardly breathe - our lungs were full of all sorts of asthmatic triggers - and we were filthy, exhausted and sunburnt beyond recognition.

Once we were done the kids got up and came down, walking around and inspecting what we had done. The obvious leader of the group just shrugged his shoulders and they all trudged back up the hill and out of sight, never to be seen again.

My shame was complete. I never went that way up the trail again.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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