Under the House
TWICE A YEAR, THE SHARPENER ARRIVED AT THE top gate, whistled for them to lock up the dogs, and then made his way around the back of the house to the kitchen lawn. Usually, the girl was there first. She squatted like him to see the files and stones laid out in a silent circle, the carving knife taken up, the flash of the blade as he curved his wrist left and right, never missing. And then the gleaming thing laid down on the tray, where she longed to touch it.
If the nanny saw the girl out there, she called her in. The Sharpener was a wild man, she said, he drank cheap brandy and lived under a piece of tin. He could be a Coloured, said her mother, or just dark from working in the sun, and from lawnmower grease, and from not washing properly.
But whenever the girl heard his whistle, she ran out anyway. He never looked up at her. He wasn't the sort of man to notice a child growing year by year, or to care. He seemed to consider only the knives, always choosing the carver first, holding it up to the light, running its edge along the pad of his thumb. When all the knives were sharpened and he walked around to the front verandah, she followed him there. She waited next to his satchel while he opened the little door and climbed down under the house to fetch the lawnmower.
And then one day she asked, "What do you do under the house?"
And he stopped on the top step and turned to look at her with his dirty green eyes. He didn't smile, he never smiled. But he tossed his head for her to follow him, and so she did, down into the cool, dim light.
She knew the place well. It was deep and wide, running the length of the verandah, and high enough to stand up in. Bicycles were kept down there, and the old doll's pram, pushed now behind the garden rakes and hoes and clippers. There were sacks of seed, and bulbs, manure, and cans of oil. Through an opening in the wall, deeper in, were rooms and rooms of raw red earth, with walls and passages between them, like the house above. In the middle was a place no light could reach. She had crawled back there once, and crouched, and listened to rats scraping and darting, footsteps above, the dogs off somewhere. It smelled sour back there, and damp, and wonderful.
The Sharpener stood just out of a beam of light that came in through one of the vents. He tossed his head at her again and moved deeper into the shadow.
She knew rude things. She had done rude things with cousins and friends. There was a frenzy to them-the giggling and hushing and urging on. But now she stood solemn and still as the Sharpener came to crouch before her. He lifted her skirt and found her bloomers, pulled them down to her knees.
"We can lie down," he said.
But she shook her head, and he stood up again. He unbuttoned his trousers, pulled his thing through the slit and held it out on the palm of his hand. She knew he was offering it to her, asking for something too, his eyes never leaving her face. But she clasped her hands behind her back and looked down at the floor.
He pushed himself closer, pushed his thing up under her skirt, against her stomach, breathing his smell all over her, sweat and liquor and dirt. He turned her around and crouched behind her to push it between her legs. When she lifted her skirt, she saw it sticking through as if it were her own, and she giggled.
Copyright © 2004 by Lynn Freed
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